Chronic Bengay For What Ails Ya? 

Medical cannabis topicals treat pain and inflammation, so why is the federal government harassing old ladies with arthritis?

A new Rasmussen poll shows that 56 percent of Americans favor legalizing and regulating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco, and 58 percent favor selling pot in pharmacies only. But future supplies of ganja at Walgreens aren't destined solely for the behind-the-counter rack. Weed is just as likely to pop up in the Bengay aisle.

According to patients, dispensary operators, doctors, and manufacturers, topical cannabis use is soaring in California, Colorado, and elsewhere, even amid the federal crackdown. More and more aging Baby Boomers are seeking nontoxic relief from arthritis pain, sore necks and backs, and muscle tension by slathering their skin with an astoundingly diverse array of weed sprays, oils, lotions, rubs, and balms.

It's an ancient treatment backed up by a growing body of modern research, but it's not a very sexy one, said Daniel Kosmal, co-founder of Doc Green's Healing Collective, a three-year-old Berkeley nonprofit that provides weed lotions to about one hundred dispensaries across the state. "It's just not a sexy topic for a lot of folks," Kosmal said. "It's not psychoactive. You put it on, it relieves pain, reduces inflammation, and relaxes muscles that are tight. How many people really want to have articles about Bengay? There's no controversy."

Topicals might have remained uncontroversial if it weren't for the seven-month-old federal crackdown. Medical marijuana prohibition is cutting off banking services to topicals makers, disrupting regulation of medical-grade pot-growing, closing dispensaries that carry the products, and intimidating the one group that needs it most: the elderly. Lost in the uproar over exports, profits, sales, and smoking are the old ladies and disabled grandfathers getting genuine relief from the drug.

"Paul," founder and operator of Lovingly & Legally Grown, distributes his sprays and oils to about a dozen Northern California dispensaries. The San Francisco and Mendocino resident says he had not used pot or ate edibles since high school. But a car accident in 2007 left him in constant pain from a broken back and ribs. Hooked on Vicodin, Paul became cranky, constipated, and worried about liver damage from the painkillers, so he quit. He had resigned himself to the pain when a chance encounter with a weed spray at a Mendocino swimming hole changed his life.

A local resident could see he was hurting, "so she came out and sprayed my neck, shoulders, and arm, and about 30 to 45 seconds later, 90 percent of the pain was gone. I said, 'What the hell was that?' If anyone had told me what it was, I would've said, 'Nah, nah, nah, snake oil. Placebo effect.' Just denial. But it worked."

Robert Melamede, who teaches biology at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in molecular biochemistry, said Americans are re-discovering topical cannabis use and are innovating with it. "We've got history that shows all the past medical uses dating back thousands of years and it's those very same uses that people are using it for today," he said.

According to The Pot Book (2010) by Dr. Julie Holland, topical weed first showed up in ancient Mesopotamia on Assyrian tablets as an ingredient in a healing ointment used on skin lesions and swollen limbs. In 1700 BC, the Egyptians called it "sm-sm-t," and used it on ingrown toenails and vaginal inflammation, and as a topical antibiotic. The Chinese used it, and it appears in the Old Testament as part of a recipe for healing balms that called for "q'neh bosm," or sweet, fragrant cane.

In the Sixties, scientists discovered a molecule in cannabis that caused euphoria, THC. Scientists went on to find dozens of "cannabinoids," which led to the discovery in the Nineties of a communication system in the human body called the "endogenous cannabinoid system." Humans make endocannabinoids from birth until death and the entire body is full of "endocannabinoid receptors."

Melamede said human skin is loaded with such receptors in nerves, muscle, fat, and hair follicles. Rubbing or spraying skin with THC and other cannabinoids like CBD stimulates the receptors. Cannabinoids have been shown in studies to reduce inflammation and neuropathic pain.

Cannabinoids also modulate the body's immune response, short-circuiting auto-immune disorders like eczema and psoriasis. In labs, cannabinoids can kill malignant tumors and stimulate anti-tumor immune response. Anecdotal reports abound about topical medical cannabis used to treat malignant skin cancers like basal-cell carcinoma, Melamede said.

Topical cannabis' effects are generally localized, Melamede said, so rubbing some on a bum shoulder won't get you high. However, large amounts of transdermal THC can induce feelings of euphoria, or being high.

Research on topical cannabis continues worldwide, especially overseas, but according to Dr. Frank Lucido of Berkeley, rigorous, double-blind studies are needed to buttress patient claims. Patients aren't waiting, though. "I can tell you the patients who are benefiting from medical marijuana couldn't care less if it was FDA approved or not," Melamede said. "They're the ones whose skin cancers are falling off. You think they care?"

Nichole Long, a 31-year-old San Jose patient, wrote to Legalization Nation asking for more cannabis topicals coverage. She uses a cannabis balm on her face for neuropathy, and on her fibromyalgia-racked knees and elbows. "That is the only thing I've found to bring said areas relief," she wrote.

"A number of my patients have had good results with topicals," responded Dr. David Bearman of Santa Barbara.

Bengay, watch your back.

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