Channel 4’s Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial – Press Release

Live TV programme features pioneering cannabis study showing effects of different cannabis varieties.

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance in the world. In the UK, half of 16-29 year olds have used it at least once in their life. And yet, while hundreds of thousands of studies have documented the ‘problematic’ aspects of its production, illegal trade and consumption, until recently there has been very little scientific research on how it acts on the human brain. For over 16 years, Amanda Feilding and the Beckley Foundation have been working to expand our knowledge of how psychoactive substances, such as cannabis, work in the brain, and build a firm scientific evidence base on which to develop drug policies that are health-orientated, harm-reducing, cost-effective and respectful of human rights.

One poorly-understood phenomenon concerns the effects of different cannabinoids and their impact on cognition and health. The complex biochemistry of the cannabis plant consists of over 80 cannabinoids which bind to specific receptor sites present in the brain and other parts of the body. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the most abundant of these cannabinoids.

The illegal market has encouraged the development of ever-more potent varieties of cannabis, which have very high levels of THC – the psychoactive component – and virtuallyno CBD – the non-psychoactive, neuroprotective component. This high-THC variety, which is often known as skunk, dominates the illicit market, and its use has been correlated with increased likelihood of psychotic-like effects, anxiety and long-term mental health issues.

Channel 4’s Drugs Live: Cannabis will reveal the results of a six-month trial exploring the neural underpinnings of the subjective effects experienced by users under the influence of two different varieties of cannabis: high-strength THC cannabis (‘skunk’), and balanced cannabis, which contains both THC and CBD. This research represents a breakthrough in the science of cannabinoids and confirms the importance of CBD’s therapeutic value.

The placebo-controlled, double-blind trial was carried out at UCL under the leadership of Professor Val Curran, partly in collaboration with Amanda Feilding and the Beckley Foundation. The trial consists of separate modules comparing the effects of ‘skunk’ and ‘balanced’ cannabis (vs. placebo) on brain connectivity, well-being, cognition and memory. The trial was co-funded by Channel 4, the Beckley Foundation and DrugScience.

Amanda Feilding, Director of the Beckley Foundation, said: ‘CBD is an amazing compound with a broad range of potential therapeutic effects. This research is very exciting and will hopefully pave the way for further research and, most importantly, a rational approach to drug policy which will better protect public health.’

The programme, which follows the success of Channel 4’s Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial in 2012 (based on research which was part of the Beckley Foundation/Imperial College Psychopharmacological Science Programme) will be presented by Jon Snow and Dr Christian Jessen. Professors Val Curran and David Nutt will explain the positive and negative effects of these two forms of cannabis, and a studio audience will join the debate on the effectiveness of regulation and examples of alternative approaches from around the world.

The results of this research will be submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Drugs Live: Cannabis will be broadcast on Channel 4 on March 3rd at 10pm. The 90-minute programme is made by Renegade Productions; the executive producer is Alan Hayling.


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For a brief overview of the Beckley Foundation’s work on cannabis, please click here.