Understanding the Impact of Cannabinoids on COVID-19
By: Andrew Cooper, Esq., LL.M. and Terran Cooper
As many of you have probably heard by now, we have recently learned that cannabis compounds are capable of preventing COVID-19, the disease that has plagued us for nearly two years, and infected over 300 million people worldwide. This doesn’t mean that everyone should start smoking marijuana in an effort to avoid contracting the virus. This article is intended to provide clarification on cannabinoids, their interaction with COVID-19, and discuss the legal landscape surrounding cannabis and cannabinoid research.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Products by Oregon State University researchers, details the ability of particular acidic cannabinoids to act as ligands and bind with COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) spike proteins, thus preventing entry into cells. But what does this actually mean?
The hemp compounds cannabigerolic acid (CBG-A), cannabidolic acid (CBD-A), and Δ[delta]9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A (THCA-A) were identified through an affinity selection-mass spectrometry screening of hemp extracts during an attempt to find natural products with the potential to inhibit COVID-19 replication or prevent human cell infection. Dr. Richard van Breeman and the other researchers asked themselves the question, “Could small molecules from nature, like from plants, have the same ability to stop the virus from infecting a cell if they had an ability to bind to the surface of the virus and specifically to the spike protein of the virus, which is what’s making contact with the human cell and enabling it to infect the cell?” (Carleton, 2022). Through targeting their research on the COVID-19 spike protein, the researchers were able to attack the virus at the point at which it enters a cell. Isolation and ingestion of these compounds could potentially prevent infection, although it is still uncertain how feasible this will be. The study was originally proposed in 2020 to the National Institutes of Health where it was refused funding.
But how are CBG-A, CBD-A, and THCA-A derived and how do they differ from CBG, CBD, and THC? The compounds were derived from hemp, meaning cannabis with a very low THC content. CBG-A, CBD-A, and THCA-A are all cannabinoids (substances found in the cannabis plant), and are just three of over a hundred. The “A” in the aforementioned cannabinoids represents an acid group, that is typically removed upon treatment. Due to this, CBG-A, CBD-A, and THCA-A are generally precursors to the more frequently sought CBG, CBD, and THC.
CBGA is sometimes referred to as “the mother of all cannabinoids,” due to its status as a precursor to the other major cannabinoid compounds. As a cannabis plant matures, enzymes unique to each strain convert CBGA into the other precursor compounds, most commonly CBDA, THCA, and CBCA. Likely due to its non-intoxicating effects and status as a precursor to precursors, only recently have we begun to study its therapeutic uses. In only a few years, we have seen the potential for CBGA in epilepsy treatment, killing colon cancer cells, supporting metabolic disorder treatment, and therapeutic effects for diabetic complications. There has even been headway in the biosynthesis of cannabinoids such as CBGA without plant growth through yeast. These therapeutic uses come separate from those of CBG, the non-acidic form of CBGA, which was found to have reduced affinity for binding to spike proteins when compared to the aforementioned acidic cannabinoids.
CBDA is similar to CBGA in that it is non-psychoactive, but differs in that it typically is a precursor only to CBD. Through the process of decarboxylation or removing the carboxyl group attached to an acidic cannabinoid compound, CBDA is converted to CBD. Decarboxylation occurs through exposure to heat over time and partial decarboxylation can occur in the curing process alone. Through baking, smoking, or vaporizing CBDA rich cannabis, it is thus decarboxylated into CBD-rich cannabis. Despite its widespread use for therapeutic benefits, CBD scored lower for spike protein binding affinity than the acidic cannabinoid compounds tested and even scored below CBG, Δ8-THC, and Δ9-THC.
THCA-A was used in the study and it is the most common of the two isomers of THCA (with THCA referring to the group as a whole). THCA (including THCA-A) is actually non-intoxicating due to its inability to fit within the CB1 and CBD2 receptors. This comes contrary to its psychoactive counterpart THC (most commonly found as Δ9-THC), which binds to the receptors and causes the well-known intoxicating effects of cannabis. Similar to CBDA and CBD, THCA is converted to THC through decarboxylation. This means that the intoxicating effects of THC require the conversion of THCA. So despite the common presence of THCA in cannabis, most forms of intake involve this decarboxylation or “activation” into THC. The study suggests that THCA-A had the highest affinity for spike protein bonding behind CBGA, while Δ8-THC and Δ9-THC had little affinity. Unfortunately due to the federal illegality of cannabis and its status as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, the researchers were unable to test THCA in the ways they sought to (Carleton, 2022).
The barriers to researching cannabis remain significant. Previous federal action and current federal inaction have caused much cannabis research to fall by the wayside. Cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi serves as the only supply to cannabis research, with researchers stating the cannabis is “not really representative of what people are actually consuming.” This hindrance to cannabis research prevents our top researchers from studying it. Cannabis remains a Schedule I Controlled Substance, defined as having “no currently accepted medical use, lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse,” (DEA, 2022). This comes despite 36 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands having medical cannabis programs. Medical cannabis use dates back 5,000 years ago, with one source claiming use as early as 400 AD. The endocannabinoid system, responsible for the processing of cannabinoids, was only discovered in 1992.
Only in the last few decades have we begun to comprehend all that we still do not know about cannabis. The continued illegality and historical demonization of cannabis have both limited any significant research relating to its potential benefits, while simultaneously resulting in the needless prosecution of tens of thousands of individuals for cannabis-related drug offenses. We’ve come a long way since the cult classic propaganda film Reefer Madness first debuted in 1936, which demonized cannabis by suggesting that its use will lead our youth to violence, insanity, and “zombie-like non-productivity.” And while many states have begun to recognize the detriment of cannabis’ illegality, the federal government continues to refuse to do so. The thought that we had a possible means to prevent over 5 ½ million deaths worldwide in front of our face the entire time should be enough to convince those in charge of the need to change their thinking. In closing, we may take some solace in the fact that our understanding of the therapeutic potential of cannabis is still in its infancy, as demonstrated by this most recent study. But knowing that we’ve only just begun to touch the potential benefits of this magical plant is both frustrating and exhilarating.
DISCLAIMER: This summary is not legal advice and does not create any attorney-client relationship. This summary does not provide a definitive legal opinion for any factual situation. Before the firm can provide legal advice or opinion to any person or entity, the specific facts at issue must be reviewed by the firm. Before an attorney-client relationship is formed, the firm must have a signed engagement letter with a client setting forth the Firm’s scope and terms of representation. The information contained herein is based upon the law at the time of publication.
Carleton, A. (2022, January 12). A Q&A With the Scientist Who Discovered Cannabis Can Prevent COVID-19. Retrieved from Vice: https://www.vice.com/en/article/bvn7gd/the-scientist-who-discovered-cannabis-can-prevent-covid-19
DEA, U. (2022). Controlled Substance Schedules. Retrieved from DEA Diversion Control Division: https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/