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For decades, medical professionals have been searching for an effective treatment for depression. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the go-ahead to scientists at Janssen Pharmaceuticals to begin research and trials using horse tranquilizers to treat the condition.

At the same time, they have decided not to move marijuana from its Schedule 1 listing, classifying the plant in the same category as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy (3). Further ignoring increasingly positive medical opinions of the drug too.

The History of Ketamine

Ketamine, also known as esketamine, is these days most commonly used as a veterinary tranquilizer, specifically for horses. It does have quite a reputation, though, used as a party drug, infamous for its sedative and sometimes hallucinatory, properties.

Even though it is only recently that the FDA approved the drug for this particular line of research, they first approved the drug for human consumption in 1970 (8 years after it was synthesized in a laboratory in 1962). It was adopted shortly thereafter by the army and used during the Vietnam War as a sedative and pain reliever. However, the hallucinogenic effects of the drug warned doctors off it after not too long. (2)

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Application of Use For Depression?

ketamine depression treatment

In the United States, there are more than 41,000 suicides every year (1). This, according to Husseini K. Manji, M.D., the global head of Janssen’s Neuroscience and Therapeutic Area, is quite likely a result of “untreated or poorly treated major depression.” (1)

This new approval means that Janssen can go ahead with clinical trials to help them better understand the practical applications of ketamine as a treatment for, “patients with major depressive disorder who are at imminent risk for suicide, a condition for which there currently is no approved treatment.” (1)

The trials are going to be extensive – it is still not entirely clear what ketamine does to the brain, or why it is so effective at treating disorders such as depression. Dr. Julie Coffman, from OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, explains that when a patient is depressed, this causes damage to the brain’s nerves and transmission pathways.

Dr. Dan Iosifescu, from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explains that previous animal studies into esketamine may provide some insight into what’s happening in the brain. These animal studies showed that ketamine remodels nerves in the brain, creating new connections between brain cells. This would, temporarily at least, repair the damage done by the depression in the first place.

One of the most interesting things about this is that it does it in a matter of hours. Current medical treatment for depression can take weeks, if not months, to come into effect. The effects of ketamine are also long-lasting, with some patients reporting positive results for up to 30 days after just one dose. (2)

However, some professionals note that using ketamine in this way can reverse tolerance to opioids, and there are concerns of the similarity between prescription ketamine, and the street drug, which is a known substance of abuse.

The Stance on Marijuana

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While is is excellent news that these trials now have the go-ahead and that scientists might be one step closer to finding an effective treatment for depression, the decision has been met with some backlash.

People are confused as to why marijuana continues to be ignored as an option for medicinal use. Just one week before this announcement, the FDA announced it would not be making any changes to cannabis’ current legal scheduling, placing it in the strictest of all the categories (3).

There have been hundreds and thousands of accounts of people benefiting from the medicinal use of marijuana, yet it seems there are no plans to discuss or review its legal status anytime soon. Because of its listing as a Schedule 1 substance, federal permission has to be granted for researchers to even conduct studies on it, which makes research that much harder.

Many people believe that this is due to the increasing evidence that marijuana is causing Big Pharma to lose profits in those states where it is legalized. A research team at the University of Georgia found that, between 2010 and 2013, in states where medical marijuana is legal each year, on average, doctors prescribed 1,826 fewer painkiller prescriptions in comparison to states restricting the use of marijuana (4).

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One commentator on the matter rather succinctly explained, “If any doubt lingered about the connection between government and the insidious pharmaceutical industry, the contrasting decisions in failing to reschedule cannabis versus greenlighting the sometimes-party drug ketamine handily annihilates any uncertainty.” (1)

In Conclusion

Although the news that effective treatments for conditions such as depression are being researched is certainly welcome, many can’t help but draw comparisons between the two drugs (both of which have reputations for recreational use) and the attitude of the U.S. government towards them. It seems unfair that many people suffering at the hands of an otherwise incurable disease may finally have a solution in the form of a synthetic drug, but are continually denied the chance to see whether a natural remedy, in the form of cannabis, would work just as well.

It seems unfair that many people suffering at the hands of an otherwise incurable disease may finally have a solution in the form of a synthetic drug, but are continually denied the chance to see whether a natural remedy, in the form of cannabis, would work just as well, if not better.

Sources:

1. As Feds Claim Pot Has “No Medicinal Use” FDA Approving Horse Tranquilizer for Depression – Anonymous. Anonewsco. 2016. Available at: http://www.anonews.co/tranquilizer-fda/. Accessed September 20, 2016.

2. Susan Scutti C. Party drug ketamine closer to treating depression. CNN. 2016. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/17/health/ketamine-depression-treatment/index.html. Accessed September 20, 2016.

3. DEA / Drug Scheduling. Deagov. 2016. Available at: https://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml. Accessed September 20, 2016.

4. One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana. Washington Post. 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/13/one-striking-chart-shows-why-pharma-companies-are-fighting-legal-marijuana/. Accessed September 20, 2016.

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