“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the Assistant Director General for the World Health Organization’s Health Security department, said last year after the WHO released its first ever global report on antibiotic resistance. “Common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill,” he continued, explaining how antibiotic resistant bacteria are now one of the top health concerns of the world.
The horrible irony is that the evolution of bacteria into “superbugs” is driven in large part by the antibiotics that were designed to treat them in the first place. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) for example, which causes over 10,000 deaths each year according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is a direct byproduct of over-using antibiotics, which bred a stronger and more dangerous version of the common Staph aureus bacteria.
MRSA, which infects open wounds and increases the chance of death in patients by over 60 percent according to the CDC, is now wreaking havoc in hospitals and other facilities where it can spread easily between people in close contact.
Although MRSA is often associated with those with lowered immune systems, recently there have been outbreaks among healthy populations, including at a New York State high school and even among members of the Buccaneers professional NFL football team – guard Carl Nicks was injured so badly by the infection he had to undergo surgery and ended up losing his place on the team.
The situation has become so severe that in late 2014, President Obama issued an executive order devoted to combating antibiotic resistant bacteria, which he called “a serious threat to public health and the economy.”
Obama even allotted $1.2 billion to the annual budget for the establishment of a special task force devoted to the issue, one that would develop an action plan for stopping the fast spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria like MRSA.
A Game Changing Study
In 2008, however, a first of its kind study conducted by a team of British and Italian researchers had already found that one of the world’s most commonly cultivated plants could stop MRSA in its tracks: marijuana.
Specifically, the team tested five of marijuana’s most common cannabinoids against six different MRSA strains of “clinical relevance”, including epidemic EMRSA strains, which are the ones responsible for hospital outbreaks. They found that every single one of the cannabinoids tested showed “potent activity” against a wide variety of the bacteria.
Cannabinoids are substances unique to the cannabis plant that have wide-ranging medicinal properties: they fight cancer, reverse inflammation and act as powerful antioxidants. Now we know that they are also some of the most powerful antibiotics on earth.
“Everything points towards these compounds having been evolved by the plants as antimicrobial defenses that specifically target bacterial cells,” said Simon Gibbons, one of the authors of the study and head of the Department of Pharmaceutical and Biological Chemistry at the University College London School of Pharmacy, in a follow up interview in the MIT Technological Review.
Amazingly, the cannabinoids even showed “exceptional activity” against a strain of the MRSA that had developed extra proteins for increased resistance to antibiotics, showing that cannabis remained effective despite the bacteria’s adaptations.
“The actual mechanism by which they kill the bugs is still a mystery…” said Gibbons. “I really cannot hazard a guess how they do it, but their high potency as antibiotics suggests there must be a very specific mechanism.”
The researchers recommend cannabis as the source of new and effective antibiotic products that can be used in institutional settings right now.
“The most practical application of cannabinoids would be as topical agents to treat ulcers and wounds in a hospital environment, decreasing the burden of antibiotics,” said Giovanni Appendino, a professor at Italy’s Piemonte Orientale University and co-author of the study.
Since two of the most potently antibacterial cannabinoids were not psychoactive at all and appear in abundance in the common and fast-growing hemp plant, producing the antibiotics of the future could be quick and simple.
“What this means is, we could use fiber hemp plants that have no use as recreational drugs to cheaply and easily produce potent antibiotics,” Appendino concluded.
How is that for an action plan, Obama?
The Hidden History Of A Miracle Plant
But introducing cannabis into the formal healthcare system is nothing new; the plant has been used as medicine by different cultures for millennia. A 1960 paper by Professors Dr. J. Kabelik and Dr. F. Santavy of Palacky University in the Czech Republic entitled Marijuana as a Medicament is perhaps the most comprehensive look at marijuana’s traditional use around the globe ever written. Surprisingly, the authors claim that for most cultures and for most time periods, cannabis was used as an antibiotic and treatment for chronic illnesses first and foremost, while its narcotic use is limited to certain areas and historical periods.
“All the information obtained from European folk medicine with regard to treatment with cannabis shows clearly that there do not appear to be any narcotic substances in it, or if there are then only in a negligible amount,” the authors claim. “Instead of that, emphasis has been laid on the antiseptic effect, hence on the antibiotic and to a small extent even on the analgetic (analgesic) effect.”
The same pattern was found in ancient Egypt, where “papyruses point fundamentally to antiseptic use” and in modern African tribes, where the “analgetic, sedative and antibiotic properties of cannabis in internal and external application are well known.”
In South American folk medicine, marijuana was used for everything from gonorrhea to tuberculosis, according to the paper, and in Southern Rhodesia “it is a remedy for anthrax, sepsis, dysentery, malaria and for tropical quinine-malarial haemoglobinuria.”
Even as late as the 19th century, cannabis was used by Western doctors to combat serious illnesses at home and abroad. An 1843 article in London’s Provincial Medical Journal, for example, chronicles an Irish doctor’s success in treating both tetanus and cholera in India by using cannabis in the form of crude hemp resin. Both these diseases are caused by bacteria and were major killers at the time.
A potent and commonly used medicine, cannabis was added to the official U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1851, where it remained until it was removed in 1942. Coincidentally, the widespread manufacture and use of early commercial antibiotics — like penicillin, which was first isolated in 1929 but not mass produced until 1945 — happened at the same time as cannabis was taken out of medicinal use.
The next half a century saw the touting of antibiotics as miracle drugs while marijuana came to be almost completely associated with getting “high” — its potent medicinal properties obscured behind a cloud of fear and propaganda.
It is only in the last couple of decades that the failure of antibiotics and clinical medicine to address a fast growing number of serious illnesses has driven people to rediscover the miraculous healing powers of this ancient plant.
“Within a few months, Cannabis oil had done what years of antibiotics had failed to do, it had given me my life back,” writes Shelley White in the preface to her recently published book, Cannabis for Lyme Disease and Related Conditions: Scientific Basis and Anecdotal Evidence for Medicinal Use.
“I most certainly believe it works as an antibacterial,” Shelley told. “I just am not comfortable calling it a cure due to the fact that the disease is so complex and each case is different.” Instead, Shelley says she is “symptom free” after nine years of battling the disease.
Confusion and mystery surround Lyme disease, which is now the most common vector borne illness in the United States according to the CDC, with 300,000 new cases reported each year. Caused by the spirochete bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted through the bite of tick, Lyme is treated by several weeks of antibiotics.
But the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) claims that at least 40 percent of Lyme patients end up with long term health problems, known as “chronic Lyme.” Not only has there never been a study that shows that antibiotics successfully treat chronic Lyme, but no accurate tests exist to indicate whether the bacteria has been eradicated or not after treatment, the ILADS website states. For chronic Lyme suffers, life becomes a nightmare without an end in sight.
“I was completely debilitated, I could not walk or talk and I was in a wheelchair being spoon-fed.” Shelley says in a YouTube video she posted in September of 2013 that chronicles her healing journey with cannabis oil. “I did antibiotics for over a year” she states, “They did not work for me they worked against me.”
“I took a shot in the dark and started using cannabis oil and it worked,” she explains.
The video went viral, as for many people who suffer from chronic Lyme, news of a successful treatment is like catching wind of a miracle. It was this response that inspired Shelley to write the book.
A story of personal healing that is also strongly grounded in scientific research; the book begins with an overview of the antibacterial properties of cannabis. Then, chapter-by-chapter, it looks at evidence supporting the plant’s ability to alleviate every symptom of the disease — from nerve pain and seizures to memory loss and depression.
Finally, Shelly shares her recipe for homemade cannabis infused coconut and olive oils, which can be made on the stovetop in under a half an hour by anyone with basic cooking skills. The trick is in not heating it over the boiling point to extract as much of the healing properties as possible.
A Medicine For The Masses
It turns out that Shelley’s simple oil extract is possibly the most potent form of marijuana medicine on earth. Olive oil is actually the “optimal choice for preparation of Cannabis oils for self-medication,” states Biologist Dr. Arno Hazekamp of Leiden University in Holland in a 2013 study entitled Cannabis Oil: chemical evaluation of an upcoming cannabis-based medicine.
The study tested cannabis infused oil olive against several other extraction methods, including the popular solvent based “Rick Simpson” extraction method, which uses either naphtha or petroleum ether, and an ethanol extraction process.
While the naphtha method did result in a product with the highest THC levels, the olive oil extraction not only yielded the highest overall cannabinoid levels, but higher levels of terpenes than the other processes.
Terpenes are the essential oil compounds responsible for the distinctly pungent aroma of cannabis. Common strong smelling kitchen herbs like oregano are known for their powerful antibiotic properties, which is due to their terpene content. Volatile and delicate, terpenes can be quickly destroyed when heated too high.
“It can be concluded that it is not feasible to perform decarboxylation of cannabinoids, without significant loss of terpene components.” Dr. Hazekamp advises. The decarboxylation process, which heats marijuana to a point where the THC becomes psychoactive, happens automatically when cannabis is smoked, meaning tokers are not getting the full benefit of the herb’s medicinal power.
Likewise, expensive products that rely on processing marijuana, especially those that isolate certain cannabinoids, are also limiting its potential healing power. The terpenebeta-Pinene for example, which has been found to be anti-fungal and to synergistically fight MRSA, was completely absent in the naphtha based “Rick Simpson” style cannabis oil tested, which tries to extract as much THC as possible. It remained at high levels in the olive oil extraction however.
“Retaining the full spectrum of terpenes present in fresh cannabis material should therefore be a major focus during optimal Cannabis oil production,” Dr. Hazekamp concludes. The wide array of cannabinoids and terpenes present in the plant in its natural state are what makes marijuana such a versatile remedy for a variety of conditions and an extremely potent antibiotic.
And although the White House just lifted many of the restrictions on medical marijuana research that had been in place since the 1990s, it is unlikely that science will ever come up with a more powerful marijuana based product than the simple homemade oil that can be used both topically and internally.
This means that even with a “post-antibiotic” era looming on the horizon and a growing tide of new mystery illnesses sweeping the land, the super medicine of the future remains right where it has been for most of the past — in nature, freely available for our use.