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As stocked as the shelves have been for cannabis consumers in Canada, or the e-shelves if you’re in Ontario, you won’t find a product that is gaining traction in the cannabis community: topicals.

These ointments or creams are known to assist some sufferers of chronic pain such as nerve damage. But Canada won’t allow cannabis topicals into the recreational market for another year, until these products are approved by Health Canada. Currently, only approved medical cannabis users can receive a prescription for cannabis topicals.

How do these topicals work? The human body naturally interacts with cannabis via a system of receptors called the endocannabinoid system, and it thrives in our brains, as well as throughout our nervous systems. Humans all have receptors ready to interpret the cannabis plant’s chemical compounds, or cannabinoids.

“These receptors aren’t all in our heads,” Dr. Selman Holden, a Harvard-trained family physician in Maine, told reporters.1 “We’ve got them all over our body. So, when cannabis is applied locally to an area of discomfort, say an achy joint, then the CB1/2 receptor system does its anti-inflammatory or pain work there, along with releasing endogenous opioids.”

She added that because of how these creams are applied, cannabis topicals are unlikely to get someone high.

“If it was applied to our mucosal tissues, like our mouth — maybe for a cold sore/herpes blister — or for a hemorrhoid, then there’s a better chance, but usually so little is used, and it’s not usually highly concentrated cannabis oil,” she said.

Cannabis topicals may not be legal but that hasn’t stopped Canadian dispensaries from stocking a variety of ointments. At a cannabis-friendly farmer’s market in Toronto in early 2018, several vendors openly sold cannabis creams that were available to not just medical-cannabis cardholders, but also to recreational users.

As with much of cannabis science, there are still many hypotheticals and theoretical ideas regarding topicals. It’s been difficult for scientists to study the medicinal uses of cannabis as it’s applied to the skin due to decades of the U.S. and Canada being stymied to research the plant in a concerted manner.

A Canadian topical maker wants to change that. Joseph Gabriele is the CEO of Delivra, a biotech company focused on creating topical delivery platforms. They created a cannabis topical that is currently being used by physicians in clinics, and their products are available in Canada via a medical cannabis prescription.

Patients may prefer topicals over other products because they want “a predictable outcome,” says Gabriele in an interview. “When you ingest something like a cannabis edible, or smoke a joint, your body metabolizes the cannabis and your body is different than mine so there could be a lot of variability in the response to cannabis. And a cannabis brownie, say, might have a lot of concentration of cannabis in one corner of the brownie compared to another. It’s difficult to get consistency in an edible.”With a cannabis topical, though, Gabriele says the patient gets a “more sustained effect and more bang for their buck.”

Making these drugs work by applying them to the skin requires a deep knowledge of transdermal science. An article in The Cannabist explains that if the skin’s outter layer is penetrated by a carrier substance in the patch, then the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredient (API), such as cannabis, can be circulated into the bloodstream. Permeation enhancers can be liposomes, fatty acids, terpenes, etc.

But once it works, Gabriele says, it works extremely well, with a one-gram dosage affecting the body for 10-to-12 hours.

Cannabis topicals have become quite popular in the U.S. even with the celebrity set, who praise their therapeutic value: Actor Patrick Stewart revealed2 in 2017 that he uses cannabis creams to ease the pain of his arthritis symptoms.

  1. https://www.sfchronicle.com/health/article/Gateway-to-cannabis-relief-Topicals-get-to-11002058.php
  2. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/patrick-stewart-reveals-he-uses-marijuana-daily-to-help-with-arthritis-symptoms_us_58ca80bae4b00705db4c6e80

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