Cannabis users have claimed for decades that the social use of the plant can forge immediate bonds among strangers and bring groups of people together, even though opponents have been just as quick to proclaim its many dangers. Now, scientists have discovered that increasing levels of anandamide, which has a similar chemical structure to the cannabinoids in cannabis, promotes social interaction in monkeys, bringing them one step closer to explaining the reason for the bonding effects cannabis users describe.

Recreational marijuana was introduced to the country by Mexican immigrants shortly following the Mexican Revolution in 1910.  Anti-immigrant sentiments tended to associate vilified Mexicans and the cannabis they used, creating a wave of public opinion in opposition to the drug.  Congress leveraged those stereotypes in anti-marijuana propaganda campaigns (which linked usage to racial stereotypes and socially deviant behavior) in the 1930’s, leading to passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, which for the first time criminalized the drug.

The counter-culture movement of the 1960’s once again brought cannabis out of the shadows.  Since that time, proponents, citing the benefits of cannabis and its relative harmlessness, have pushed for legalization.  Opponents, including government, law enforcement, the alcohol industry and pharmaceutical companies, have argued that marijuana is a dangerous gateway drug which leads to addiction and criminal behavior.

The Scientific Community Weighs In

In recent decades, some 22,000 scientific studies have been conducted on the effects of marijuana usage.  According to NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the consensus of those studies and reviews is clear:

“The scientific conclusions of the overwhelmingly majority of modern research directly conflicts with the federal government’s stance that cannabis is a highly dangerous substance worthy of absolute criminalization.”

Now, a new study from the University of California published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) goes one step further in finding that marijuana use is not only not dangerous, but could actually enhance social integration and interaction.

Anandamide:  The “Bliss Molecule”

Specifically, researchers have found a connection between oxytocin, a hormone produced in the human body, and the formation of anandamide in newborn monkeys.  Anandamide is a neurotransmitter, a sort of messenger molecule which allows nerve cells to communicate with one another, relieving pain, easing depression, and encouraging social interaction.  The chemical structure of anandamide is similar to that of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.  Both anandamide and cannabinoids in cannabis, like THC, activate the same endocannabinoid receptors in the human body, and they have similarly positive psychological effects to the ingestion of cannabis.

The scientists divided the monkeys into two groups, those who were free to socialize and those who were kept in isolation.  The isolated monkeys had lower levels of anandamide in their bloodstreams, but, when they received oxytocin, anandamide levels increased, as did their social interaction.

Oxytocin, Anandamide and Autism

In addition to easing social integration, anandamide appears to increase self-esteem and self-control.  Additional research has demonstrated that those benefits are especially useful in the treatment of children with autism.  A new study at the University of Australia, Sydney, saw marked social, behavioral and emotional improvement in autistic children, ages 5 through 8, who received an oxytocin nasal spray.

Demand More Research

The political battle over marijuana, typically uninformed by scientific research, continues unabated, and the stakes are high, with draconian laws and stiff prison sentences still in place in many states.  While the list of states in which the recreational use of marijuana is legal continues to grow, and now includes California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada and Washington, D.C., the new administration in Washington has signaled at best conflicting views on legalization, and at worst an absolute hostility.  Incoming Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, for example, told reporters in April of last year that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and that marijuana was “not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized.”

As New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once noted, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”  Increasingly, the facts, and the consensus of scientific research, is that marijuana has shown promising results in treating a wide range of physical and psychological diseases, from glaucoma to autism.