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A Closer Look at Cannabis and Eye Health

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

It is hard to believe that 44 years have passed since Robert Randall’s and his wife Alice O’Leary Randall’s landmark legal battle against the United States Government. Living in Washington D.C. in the ‘70s, Robert was diagnosed with glaucoma at the age of 25 and was told he could lose his vision completely in just 5 short years. He and Alice, a registered nurse, found that compounds in the cannabis sativa plant were able to relieve the ocular pressure he was experiencing. Unfortunately, the DEA classifies cannabis sativa as a schedule 1 controlled substance, and Robert was arrested for growing plants on his D.C. balcony.

In 1976, Robert and Alice sued the United States Government - and won - allowing them legal access to cannabis sativa based on the concept of medical necessity. It took another 20 years before California was able to pass Proposition 215 in 1996 and Compassionate Use legislation, overseen by the FDA. We should all be asking the question: why have the American people been misled to think a plant that has been used globally for over 5,000 years would be highly dangerous and have no medical use? Particularly when the chronic use and safety profile of cannabis sativa is better than many pharmaceutical drugs used and recommended by practitioners across our country.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has recently taken a stance against cannabis sativa for the glaucoma treatment. It was cited that they believed one would need high doses of THC and pharmaceutical treatments for glaucoma were already available on the market. However, research conducted by institutions like my alma mater, Indiana University, is further building the therapeutic use case for cannabis.

Led by scientist Alex Straiker, they investigated the endocannabinoid system’s links to eye health, focusing on cannabinoid receptor GPR18, which also mediates some of the cannabinoids effect on blood pressure and cardiovascular health. A compound called NAGly (N-arachidonoylglycine) is believed to be synthesized from the breakdown products of anandamide. The researcher’s mouse model discovered that, by activating the GPR18 cannabinoid orphan receptor with NAGly, the rate of corneal healing from a scratch sped up significantly.

Typically, opioids and non-steroidal prescription drugs are prescribed for peripheral neuropathy and pain associated with spinal cord injuries. We already know the side effects and low efficacy of these solutions, which is why researchers, medical practitioners, and patients are seeking alternative solutions. It is also well established that endocannabinoid system activation reduces pain sensations at both central and peripheral levels. Scientists at the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada found that their experiments on animals using CBD can reduce neuropathic pain and inflammation to the cornea, via the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

Deeper investigation certainly needs to be made into the delivery method of CBD in a clinical setting, but initial research is promising. State legislatures are already beginning to open up their laws regarding hemp and cannabis, understanding that their benefits far outweigh the costs (whether real or imagined). The fight that Robert and Alice took to the Federal Government 44 years ago continues to this day. However, with continued public education, institutional research, and private sector investment, this plant’s future as commonly accepted treatment for eye health looks bright.

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