Scientists high on cannabis benefits

Two Canadian researchers hope their work – mapping the cannabis sativa genome – will get rid of the stigma they say surrounds the cultivation of hemp and marijuana in Canada.  The University of Saskatchewan’s Jon Page and the University of Toronto’s Tim Hughes hope other scientists will use their work to develop marijuana as a legitimate medical ingredient, and hemp as a high-quality, fastgrowing crop.  “It’s a useful plant,” Page told Postmedia News on the phone from Saskatoon.  “You can eat it, you can build with it, you can use it as medicine … but, because of its reputation, it’s hard to get funding to work with it.”  Using genome sequencing technology, Page and Hughes found that, through years of cultivating cannabis, farmers changed the molecular makeup of the plant itself.

As with bulldogs and basset hounds, marijuana and hemp are different breeds of the same species (cannabis sativa), but marijuana contains much more THC (the medicinal ingredient) than does hemp, the fibres of which can be used to make everything from bricks and strong rope, to fibreglass and plastic-like material used to build cars, like the Canadian-made Kestrel.  In short, the THCA synthase gene – or the stuff that gets you high – is turned on in marijuana, but switched off in hemp.  Page and Hughes are the first researchers to map the cannabis genome, making it the 22nd plant and the first medicinal plant to be mapped in this way.  But the plant biochemist and the molecular biologist say research into best practices for farming the fast-growing, multi-purpose plant has lagged behind other cash crops, such as corn, rice and wheat, because of sticky laws and an unfair reputation.

“There’s just a stigma against it, so it’s not being utilized,” said Hughes, speaking from a conference in Barcelona, Spain.  However, the research, which will be published Thursday in the openaccess journal Genome Biology, could be used by hemp enthusiasts to push for fewer restrictions.  Page says Health Canada – which is responsible for regulating hemp cultivation in this country – seems to have struck a good balance by allowing licensed farmers to grow the crop since 1998, lifting a 60-year ban.  In terms of its medicinal use, Health Canada grants access to marijuana to those “who are suffering from grave and debilitating illnesses,” such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, spinal cord injury or various forms of cancer.

Today, governmentgrown medicinal marijuana in Canada contains as much as 13 per cent THC, whereas hemp plants contain less than 0.3 per cent, rendering hemp virtually useless for “recreational purposes,” said Page.  Hemp was raised for its fibre in the United States until legislation outlawed all cannabis plants because they contain THC.  Some states have since pushed to allow farmers to grow hemp, but Page says the legal climate south of the border makes a Canadian-like system unlikely in the near future.  According to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, about 25,000 acres of the crop were sown in Canada in 2010 – mostly in Manitoba.

via : The Vancover Sun

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