The Antibacterial Effects of Cannabis

Doctor in field with marijuanaBy Stokkete
photo: -Stokkete/ shutterstock

While the antibacterial effects of cannabis have long been known, yet little research has gone into understanding why.

Cannabis sativa has been used for centuries by various cultures all over the world for its medicinal purposes.  Despite containing more than 400 chemical compounds, the plant has remained a medical mystery due to prohibition and a disturbing lack of research. During the 1950s topical cannabis applications were studied extensively as antiseptic for the mouth and skin. Cannabis was also being explored during this era as a potential treatment for tuberculosis and other communicable diseases.

Since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the early 1990s, scientific discoveries of the plant's potential have accelerated.  New studies are emerging at record pace which shows the far-reaching capabilities of this little-understood plant.

Unfortunately, research limitations and stigmas surrounding the plant have essentially halted studies for several decades. Recently, however, studies are starting to show the antibacterial effects of cannabis strains may be far more beneficial than realized previously.

Bacterial Super Bugs

Antibiotic medications first started to emerge in the early 1900's. However, it wasn't until the 1930's did traditional antibiotic medication start to become prevalent. Since the discovery of penicillin, a plethora of other antibiotic drugs have entered the market.

While traditional antibiotics have undoubtedly saved many lives, an unfortunate effect of the proliferating use of antibiotics is the creation of antibody-resistant bacteria. In the world of bacteria, the phrase "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," couldn't be truer.

Overprescribing, as well as, not following prescribing instructions, has caused many bacteria to become familiar with the drugs and mutate to survive despite repeated exposure to the medication. Also, rushing to an antibiotic every time a child gets the sniffles, can eventually weaken the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to naturally ward off infection.

While the antibiotics will kill most of the bacteria. The small fraction of bacteria cells which do survive learn how to oppose the effects of the drug, thus making it more difficult to kill the next time around. By not completing the whole regimen prescribed, it increases the likelihood some bacteria survive. This creates what medical professionals call "Super Bugs" or antibiotic-resistant infections.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Maybe the most notorious superbug, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly referred to as MRSA (pronounced 'mersa'), is resistant to several antibiotics including methicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, and amoxicillin. While this infection has been on the decline for the past several years, it still wreaks havoc on medical environments, as well as, some community locations such as gyms, daycares, and other areas where people come into contact with one another.

According to the CDC, there were more than 80,000 invasive MRSA infections and 11,285 related deaths in 2011 despite a 6-year incident decrease of 31%. However, a study from the University HealthSystem Consortium (UHC) and University of Chicago Medicine indicated the “rate of MRSA infections recorded at US academic hospitals doubled between 2003 and 2008.”

In 2014, US President Barack Obama even tried to intervene by giving an executive order to establish a national strategy to fight the notorious infection.

How Cannabis May Help

Over time the cannabis plant evolved and started producing resin to fend off pests.  The compounds which are found in these resins interact with the endocannabinoid system of all vertebrate animals.  While these chemicals can be detrimental to insects as well as small in animals in large doses, none of the compounds found in marijuana are fatal to humans.  In fact, science is beginning to prove cannabis just may be the perfect healer.

A study published in the Journal of Natural Products in 2008 suggests the antibacterial properties of five known cannabinoids from cannabis could be the key to treatment-resistant infections. The study showed many cannabinoids are potent against bacteria including,

When applied to six different strains of treatment-resistant bacteria, researchers learned all five cannabinoids were as effective as other antibiotics including vancomycin; a powerful antibiotic frequently used to treat MRSA and other resistant infections.  Also, while questioning if cannabis could treat infection, researchers also wanted to understand why cannabinoids are so effective against bacteria.  However, despite the research, the targeting mechanism of the antibacterial properties of cannabinoids remains a mystery.

The researchers involved in this study concluded, "Although the use of cannabinoids as systemic antibacterial agents awaits rigorous clinical trials, ... their topical application to reduce skin colonization by MRSA seems promising. ... Cannabis sativa ... represents an interesting source of antibacterial agents to address the problem of multidrug resistance in MRSA and other pathogenic bacteria."

Interestingly, this study found that the two most effective cannabinoids for fighting bacteria are CBD and CBG, which can be readily extracted from hemp and have no psychoactive effects whatsoever.

Practical Applications

stethospcope_w_cannabis_By ADragan
photo: ADragan/ shutterstock
Using cannabis as an antibacterial treatment would be most logically approached as a topical to help treat lesions, ulcers, and wounds in clinical and hospital settings to help decrease the use of antibiotics.  Naturally, some doctors are hesitant because of a lack of research on the safety of cannabinoids.

However, one of the lead researchers, Giovanni Appendino of the Piemonte Orientale University in Italy, stated in an interview,

"The topical use of cannabis preparations has a long tradition in European medicine, and no allergies have been reported."

Here in the United States, cannabis-infused topicals are creating a flurry of activity in the legal market as well. Products like Mary's Medicinals CBC cream use cannabichromene and other cannabinoids to deliver therapeutic results. While other topical products will contain a full-spectrum of cannabinoids including THC.

Most topical applications do not contain a chemical carrier capable of delivering the cannabinoids to the bloodstream, therefore, the patient will not feel the psychoactive effects of the compounds. Transdermal gels containing THC, on the other hand, should be approached with caution as they can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and create the typical response associated with the cannabinoid.

Another promising area for antibacterial cannabis products could be as preservatives in cosmetics and toiletries.  Currently, many of these products use parabens and chlorinated phenols for preservatives.

These additives have been suggested to be hormonal modifiers and carcinogens when used regularly. Researchers suggest cannabinoid mixtures extracted from hemp could be inexpensive alternatives to these hazardous and dangerous chemical preservatives which are found in thousands of household products.

Although cannabis has been used medicinally and recreationally by the human population for thousands of years, modern times demand a deeper understanding. As with most topics related to cannabis, more research is necessary in order to truly understand the full scope of possibilities the infamous herb may have at treating multiple diseases. As research continues to uncover the secrets of the endocannabinoid system and all that it controls, we can expect to see the accepted uses of cannabis and hemp expand greatly.

To learn more about cannabis topicals, contact a local dispensary today. At least in the state of Colorado, purchase limitations have been lifted on cannabis topicals due to their inability to be used for recreational purposes. However, keep in mind, THC topicals are still illegal in other states, so don't travel with your marijuana lotions and salves!