Drug Policies

The importance of Brazilian science in the world of cannabis

Today we are going to talk a little bit about how scientific studies on cannabis are going on in Brazil and how their repercussions are worldwide. Anti Prohibitionism is also a fight for science, for a better understanding of the effects of cannabis on the human body!

Brazil is a country with great researchers and excellent universities. Federal universities are responsible for much of the research, and despite the shortcomings in the area of education, it is through education that there is great social mobility in the country. We have a habit of thinking that the neighbor’s grass is greener, right? But today we are going to talk about how Brazilian research has worldwide value! And when it comes to cannabis, many great discoveries have been made here, in our backyard.

Do you want to know who the main Brazilian researchers are and what is being investigated in Brazil? Come with us and we’ll tell you everything!

A cannabis bud full of trichomes
A cannabis bud full of trichomes

Medicinal cannabis discoveries

In ancient times, several ethnicities in Asia, the Middle East and Africa used cannabis, our beloved plant, as a medicine for the most diverse conditions. Analyzing records of the time, we realized that there was already an indication for the use of the herb to relieve stress, generalized pain and even seizures. In the 19th century, the use of medical cannabis also became popular in Europe. In France, cannabis-based cigarettes called Grimault circulated. In such a reality, prohibition seems like a parallel universe, doesn’t it?

In 1889, PhD. EA Birch published in the Lancet magazine an article that advocated the application of Cannabis Sativa L. for treatment with opium addicts. At that time, studies related to replacement therapies were beginning. Today, there are already proven theories that cannabis reduces the desire to use opioids and other drugs, as it works as an antiemetic.

The 20th century was marked by prohibitionist conventions and actions to suppress the use and research related to cannabis. Some countries, such as the United States, Egypt and also Brazil, took the lead in defending the war on drugs. In 1961, some of the substances that alter the central nervous system, including cannabis, were considered by WHO to be dangerous drugs with no therapeutic functionality.

In 1942, American chemist Roger Adams isolated CBD for the first time. Adams extracted cannabidiol from ethanol and then passed the substance through distillation under reduced pressure, isolating CBD from the mixture of constituents.

THC was first isolated in 1964, when Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam was able to discover and isolate tetrahydrocannabinol. It was an accidental discovery, as at the time any research involving cannabis was prohibited. However, curiosity and the desire to find out more about the effects of the plant motivated Mechoulam and other scientists to continue with their studies. Continuing to research a prohibited substance can be considered civil disobedience, but that disobedience has been part of cannabis history since the beginning of prohibitionism.

At first, Mechoulam assumed that THC was the active ingredient in cannabis responsible for the effects it causes. After much study by the Israeli and other scientists in the world, today we know that it is much more than that! THC is not the only cannabinoid – there are more than 400 cannabinoids interacting directly with the endocannabinoid system.

Brazil also has a very important role in researching this special plant, which we bring so much here, and its cannabinoids. The psychiatrist and researcher at the Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine, Antonio Waldo Zuardi, was the first in the world to demonstrate the calming and anti psychotic effects of CBD. The first cannabidiol extract developed in Brazil also emerged from research between FMRP and USP.

Profesor Dr. Elisaldo Carlini, from UNIFESP, published in J ClinPharmacol in 1981 a study on the beneficial effects of CBD for seizures. The Brazilian was also a pioneer in research on the topic.

It was at the beginning of the 21st century that the endocannabinoid system began to be understood by science. The researchers found internal cannabinoids, produced by the human body itself, anandamide (N-arachidonylethanolamide) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG), as well as receptors for these cannabinoids, called CB1 and CB2.

Once it became known that there is an endocannabinoid system, which is directly connected with the nervous system and with receptors that connect with cannabinoids, hypotheses arise about the potential to modulate these brain connections to cure diseases, and it is in this path that they are research going on today.

Main Brazilian researchers

In 2020, MEC announced about R$ 200 million in investments to federal universities to be applied in improving infrastructure and technology. On the other hand, the rules for granting Capes scholarships for master’s and doctoral research have been changed and, with this, it is estimated that 25% of the researchers awarded lost the scholarship.

Among the failures, negligence and successes of the Federal Government, we have to admit that unfortunately education in Brazil is not yet inclusive. However, this does not mean that it is not of quality. USP is the third best university in Latin America and has renowned researchers in all areas and with research related to marijuana it would be no different. Let’s talk a little bit about some Brazilian researchers with a lot of world impact!

Antonio Zuardi has a degree in Biological Sciences, Medical Modality and Medicine. He became a doctor in Psychobiology at Escola Paulista de Medicina in 1980 and a professor in Psychiatry in 1987 at Ribeirão Preto Medical School. Zuardi researches on the therapeutic potential of Cannabis sativa derivatives; assessment instruments in Psychiatry; anxiety; schizophrenia; evaluation of mental health care services and clinical psychopharmacology.

Elisaldo Carlini has a degree in Medicine from UNIFESP and a master’s degree in Psychopharmacology from Yale. Carlini is the creator of the Brazilian Center for Information on Psychotropic Drugs (Cebrid) and the Brazilian Society for Medicines Surveillance (Sobravime). The doctor is in his seventh term as a member of the WHO Expert Advisory Panel on Drug Dependence and Alcohol Problems. He is also not in favor of any recreational drug use, including marijuana, but he compares that banning the use of medical cannabis would be the same as banning the use of morphine for patients in great pain. Both are substances that alter the central nervous system, but that can improve the quality of life of patients with different diseases.

Sâmia Joca is another very important name for research related to cannabis in Brazil. Graduated in Pharmacy-biochemistry from UFPR and PhD in Pharmacology from USP, she is currently a professor at the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences of Ribeirão Preto at USP and researches on the mechanisms of action of antidepressants; neurobiology of the stress response; cannabinoids; neuro immunopharmacology; neuroplasticity and epigenetics.

Francisco Guimarães has a degree in Medicine from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and a PhD in Pharmacology from USP. Today he is a full professor at FMRP and his research has an emphasis on Neuropsychopharmacology, mainly on nitric oxide themes; anxiety; glutamate; serotonin; cannabinoids and stress.

Alline Campos has a degree in Pharmacy from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora and a PhD in Biological Sciences and Pharmacology from USP, performing part of her studies at the Complutense University of Madrid. Alline also did postdoctoral internships at different universities in Brazil and Europe. She is currently a PhD professor in the Department of Pharmacology at FMRP, where she develops research in the area of Neuropsychopharmacology focused on the study of plastic events in the Central Nervous System in the mechanisms of action of psychiatric drugs. One of the researcher’s publications is “Biological bases for a possible effect of cannabidiol in Parkinson’s disease”.

Isaac Karniol is a doctor, PhD in Sciences from Escola Paulista de Medicina with the thesis “Effects of samples of Cannabis sativa, delta-8 and delta-9 transtetraludrocannabinol in man and laboratory animals”, post-doctorate from the universities of Copenhagen and London and free – Professor in Clinical Psychiatry is another icon of Brazilian science. Today, Isaac is a professor at the Department of Medical Psychology and Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at UNICAMP.

Sidarta Ribeiro is one of the most active names in Brazilian science in the cannabis world. Full Professor of Neuroscience and Vice-Director of the Brain Institute at UFRN, he holds a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Brasília, a master’s degree in Biophysics from UFRJ, a doctorate in Animal Behavior from Rockefeller University and a Post-Doctorate in Neurophysiology from Duke University. His research is extensive and far beyond the topic of drug policy. Sidarta Ribeiro studies molecular neurobiology and system neurophysiology; sleep, dream and memory; neuronal plasticity; vocal communication; symbolic competence in non-human animals; computational psychiatry; neuroeducation and makes a bridge between these areas with psychedelic. Sidarta is also a senior associate researcher at the FAPESP Center for Research, Innovation and Dissemination in Neuromathematics, scientific coordinating member of the Consultative Council of the Brazilian Drug Policy Platform, member of the Interdisciplinary Studies on Psychoactive Nucleus and the Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines and finally, third secretary of the Brazilian Society for Progress and Science (SBPC). As we can imagine, Sidarta Ribeiro is behind a lot of research that is being done in Brazil.

Dartiu Xavier is also well known among students and enthusiasts of cannabis topics. Physician and doctor in Psychiatry at UNIFESP, he was a consultant to the Ministry of Health and the National Secretariat for Drugs, a member of the American Psychiatry Association, of the International Association for Analytical Psychology, as well as a research collaborator at the University of California (UCLA). In addition, he was president of the Brazilian Society of Analytical Psychology and the Brazilian Multidisciplinary Association for Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (ABRAMD). Currently Dartiu works as a psychiatrist in a private practice and is a professor at UNIFESP, researching mainly alcohol and drug addiction; Harm Reduction; depression; psychometry; neurobiology; systematic review and meta-analysis.

Andrea Gallassi holds a bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy from PUCCAMP, a master’s and doctor’s degree from USP and a postdoctoral degree from the Center for Chemical Dependence and Mental Health at the University of Toronto. She participated in the National Secretary for Drug Policy, was a technical consultant to the National Coordination for Mental Health, Alcohol and other drugs. She is currently a professor at the University of Brasilia and general coordinator of the Reference Center on Drugs and Associated Vulnerabilities at UnB. Andrea Gallassi has more than 20 scientific articles published in national and international indexed journals that discuss alcohol and other drugs.

Luisa Saad is a big name when it comes to research related to the history of cannabis. Saad is a special student of the doctorate in Social History at USP and has a master’s degree in the same subject from UFBA. She researched the post-abolition criminalization process of marijuana, approaching topics such as scientific racism; Afro-Brazilian religions; abolitionism and culture. She is the author of the book “Fumo de Negro: the criminalization of marijuana in Brazil” and a member of the National Network of Antiprohibitionist Feminists.

The medical field is a very important area when we talk about science, and that’s why we brought several researchers in the field of medicine and health in general. However, when it comes to cannabis, history and anthropology are also very important areas of research, as we were able to understand the role of cannabis in a pre-prohibitionist period and also certain motivations for prohibitionism.

Main researches done in Brazil

With an extensive list of good Brazilian researchers on the topic of cannabis, it is difficult to select which are the main researches in the area. So, let’s comment on two current and very innovative surveys.

The first is a research by a group coordinated by Professor Renato Malcher, neuroscientist at UnB and collaborator of the Brazilian Association of Medicinal Cannabis Patients (AMA + ME), published in 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Neurology. This research found that cannabinoids help in the treatment of autism. For nine months, researchers followed the effects of using CBD extract in 18 autistic patients, aged 6 to 17 years. The drug was imported from the United States with authorization from the National Health Surveillance Agency (ANVISA) and contained proportionally 75 parts of CBD to one of THC.

Of the group of 18 patients, 14 (about 78%) showed improvements in the main symptoms related to autism and in social interaction, which allowed some to have cognitive gains. Nine patients had positive impacts of more than 30% on at least one feature of the disorder, while six showed the same percentage of improvement in two or more categories. This research has brought hope to many families and is also another argument for the anti-prohibitionist struggle.

Another study conducted at FMRP and coordinated by Alline Campos analyzes drugs used to treat depression and anxiety. The study, which sought to understand the effect of receptors found in the endocannabinoid system and CBD, was one of the ten winners of the L’Oréal for Women in Science award in 2015.

Alline concluded that cannabis-based drugs may have more immediate effects than common antidepressants that have an often long latency time. The researcher also claims that the side effects of CBD are less than those of antidepressants.

The endocannabinoid system is still a great mystery: doctors, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and neurologists know very little about all the potentials and powers of this system. Perhaps one day it will be possible to reach a cure for all diseases modulated in this area of the brain.

We hope that science can overcome the prejudice generated around cannabis. Unfortunately, the stigma around drugs in general makes many people turn their backs on the medicinal and scientific potential of cannabis. Prohibitionist policies contribute to a prejudice generated around marijuana, and also create a bureaucracy around research, where scientists need many authorizations to be able to work and the logistics to access substances within universities is very complicated! Making room for more research on cannabis and other substances is essential for larger scale, better quality studies to be done.

Currently, the Federal Government is at war with the federal universities. As we have already seen, many scholarships have been cut and students perceive a scrapping of the institutions. However, resistance exists, and researchers are adapting to continue their work without much federal incentive.

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