Dr. Ethan Russo: Pot Pioneer
Pete Brady
Cannabis Culture

In the 1990's, Dr Ethan Russo spent two months in Peru's remote Manu National Park, researching use of medicinal plants by members of the Machiguenga tribes.

"Indigenous people have interesting methods of administering psychoactive and medicinal plants," Russo explained one afternoon after he and his teenage son mounted the chains on a recalcitrant tractor and coaxed it into the garage at Russo's rural Montana homestead. "Sometimes they crush leaves or flowers which they drip into their eyes to treat migraine or enhance their hunting prowess."

The energetic doctor has worked on a number of books based on his ethnobotanical studies. An unpublished manuscript titled An Ocelot for a Pillow: Researching Headaches, Hallucinogens, and Hunting Magic Among the Machiguenga of Manu describes his work in Peru. Russo's first fiction book, just published by Haworth Press, is called The Last Sorcerer: Echoes of the Rainforest. It's the story of an American physician who confronts a clash of cultures in the Amazon while searching for herbal remedies. Russo is also planning to write a fictional prequel to The Last Sorcerer, entitled Purnululu: A Young Woman's Odyssey into the Dreamtime, that will be set in the Australian Outback.

Russo jokingly calls himself a "renaissance dilettante" because he is an expert participant in an eclectic variety of scientific and sociocultural endeavors. Aside from being an ethnobotanist who has just written a book about the medicinal uses of psychotropic herbs, Russo attended medical school in France and the United States, and now has two decades experience as a pioneering neurologist helping children and adult patients in Missoula, Montana. He specializes in child neurology, migraines and chronic pain.

Russo is an admirable example of a person who combines social conscience with a zest for living life to the fullest. He's served as director or boardmember of various social service organizations such as Head Start and the Western Montana Muscular Dystrophy Association Clinic, and is also a college professor, community activist, certified organic farmer, classical guitarist, sea kayaker, Nordic skier, and a devoted husband who has fathered two outstanding teenagers.

Lest anyone think Russo only assists his own species, the highly-lauded doctor is also a member of leading international, national, and regional environmental organizations, including Montana groups dedicated to preserving rivers, native plants and animals, and open space. He owns and protects 20 acres of pristine riverfront land on the Blackfoot River, and also advises a local winery in organic viticulture techniques.

When he's not busy writing, teaching, farming, parenting, activating, healing people, and cavorting in rainforests with herbal trippers, Russo is traveling to international conferences that focus on cannabis therapeutics. He's also planning to go to Morocco next year to collaborate with Abderrahmane Merzouki, a researcher who is studying the effects of cannabis on night vision in native fishermen.

Russo's work never ends. After legendary pot doc Lester Grinspoon told him that cannabis researchers needed a professional publication featuring the latest marijuana information, Russo created the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, first published last year by Haworth Press.

The Journal has two regular and one double-theme issue a year, and is the most scholarly, comprehensive and timely compendium of cannabis research available, containing scientific, historical and interpretive reports on medical marijuana, cannabis lore, legal issues, cannabis literature, and sociocultural aspects of cannabis use and regulation.

Although most of the Journal's articles are written by top scientists and medical professionals, its content possesses sufficient clarity and explanations so that even an "average" high school student stoner can use Russo's publication to find relevant, fascinating information.

The same clarity and relevance is found in Russo's new book, the Handbook of Psychotropic Herbs, which is an entertaining and practical analysis of plant remedies for conditions including depression, insomnia, anxiety, memory loss, impotence, dementia, pain, head injury and other afflictions.

Russo wrote the handbook after conducting an exhaustive review of centuries of published historical and scientific information about plant medicines.

The "fruits" of Russo's labor are tasty indeed; his handbook is a great read filled with surprising revelations about nature's botanical gifts.

Dr Ethan Russo: `Cannabis is the most useful plant on earth.` http://www.freedomtoexhale.com/er.jpg

Of course, Cannabis Culture readers will be most interested in the book's extensive coverage of nature's kindest herb. Russo offers a concise, revelatory and comprehensive history of cannabis, providing a detailed but lyrical explanation of how the plant has been used through the ages as a pain reliever, antibiotic, relaxant, eyesight enhancer, anti-oxidant, and as a euphoria-inducing, mind-expanding antidote for life's ups and downs.

Russo has long been interested in cannabis use in all its manifestations, and is becoming an increasingly bright star in the relatively small universe of statured, credentialed professionals who are discovering and publicizing the amazing usefulness and complexity of cannabis.

Although the doctor's home state of Montana is not one of the nine that have legalized medical marijuana, Russo has risked personal and professional harm by discussing medical marijuana with patients where he thinks it pertinent.

"My opinion about the efficacy and relative safety of cannabis is widely known, since I've made no secret of my feelings the last few years," says Russo, whose upbeat demeanor gives him a disarming charm and charisma. "It hasn't hurt me too much, but I suspect that a few doctors won't refer patients to me anymore because of my views. There was one incoherent letter to the editor in the Missoulian newspaper that attacked me. Other than that, I have been able to discuss cannabis with patients from 17 to 75 years old, and I haven't had any of them walk out on me. My peers, my community and the medical licensing board generally respect me. I may have lost a few clinical cannabis patients, but only because they moved to one of the states where voters made it legal!"

Last year, Russo teamed up with med-pot advocate and registered nurse Mary Lynn Mathre and other researchers to study four of the seven remaining Americans who receive medical marijuana grown and provided by the US federal government's "Investigational New Drug" (IND) program, which has been supplying pre-rolled joints to a handful of patients since the 1970's.

"If the government had really cared to document the long term effects and medical usefulness of cannabis, it could have been closely monitoring the IND patients, and we would have a wealth of available information," explains Russo. "Instead, NIDA provided low-grade material in a form that was not medically optimized, and it made no attempt to document how cannabis was working for these people. The government didn't want to find out how good cannabis might be for chronic conditions where other medicines have failed. They have made no effort at harm reduction by investigating vaporizers, medical extracts or other modes of drug delivery."

Russo's team examined "all possible parameters for harm and benefits" caused by marijuana in the IND patients, and found only minor pulmonary effects in two of the four patients and mild cognitive effects on immediate attention and concentration.

"We see similar alterations in patients with chronic pain who do not smoke cannabis," explained Russo. "Overall, important aspects of higher cognitive functions were preserved. All things considered, they are functioning well despite having serious chronic diseases. Most of them feel cannabis is the only reason they are still alive, and we found that in our brain imaging, chest x-rays, and blood test studies, these patients were in the normal range. In all four patients, we found that use of cannabis was very positive for them, allowing better function, and allowing enhanced and extended health and longevity. Two of the four previously used intravenous narcotics for pain relief, and now use only cannabis."

Ironically, the negative pulmonary effects seen in two IND patients likely result from the government's decision to provide stale, weak, harsh marijuana, which forced the patients to smoke more material than they would have if the government had provided higher potency material.

"The government is giving them cannabis that is low-grade and poorly manicured, and therefore irritating to the respiratory system. The government's cannabis contains seeds and stems, and has low cannabinoid content," Russo laments. "The government has stronger material available, but say they can't give it to patients because it is too sticky and interferes with their rolling machines. Recently in California, a study protocol that requested seven percent THC material was rejected by NIDA as 'too strong.' The people making these decisions seem not to understand or acknowledge that patients titrate their intake if they get stronger cannabis, and can use less, thus reducing pulmonary risk. I showed pictures of the NIDA material at the International Cannabinoid Research Society conference in Spain; people gasped when they saw the low quality material that is provided to patients."

Russo is cheerful by nature, but he finds it hard to be magnanimous about US government marijuana policies and regulations.

"We look at countries like Holland and England, where the government acknowledges the undeniable evidence that cannabis is an effective medicine with few significant side effects, then we look at the United States where my FDA-approved study on cannabis' ability to reduce migraine was stone-walled because NIDA holds a monopoly on the legal supply of cannabis for research, and they refused to provide it for my study. As a doctor and a citizen, knowing that researchers in other countries are researching and confirming new medical uses for cannabis all the time, such as its ability to protect the brain after head trauma or stroke, I am dismayed by policies that prevent us from fully utilizing the healing potential of this plant and prevent people from using the best medicine for their condition," he said.

Russo considers himself fortunate to be a scientific advisor to the world's premier cannabis research and products company GW Pharmaceuticals.

"I greatly appreciate that they are using whole cannabis extracts for their unique delivery systems. They recognize the synergistic potential of cannabis components, and provide them in a safe, reliable, and reproducible pharmaceutical form," Russo said.

In an accompanying article, you'll read about the revolutionary cannabis research being conducted at GW's United Kingdom cannabis cultivation laboratory. Russo and GW scientist-physician Dr John McPartland recently published an extensive report in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics on cannabinoids and other physiologically active cannabis constituents, such as its essential oils and flavonoids.

"Cannabis is the single most versatile herbal remedy, and the most useful plant on Earth," Russo says with a smile. "No other single plant contains as wide a range of medically active herbal constituents. I like to think of it as Nature's highest expression of unrequited female botanical passion!"

Unfortunately for Russo, who says he himself has "three medical conditions that would benefit from clinical cannabis," the continuing specter of politically-motivated persecution means that one of the world's most knowledgeable experts can't use the plant he so admires.

"Let's be honest," Russo says, "I smoked cannabis in college, and I inhaled frequently, deeply and with malice aforethought. I enjoyed it. It didn't prevent me from studying and learning. I have not smoked marijuana for many years, however, because of my family and professional responsibilities. It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make at this time: I abstain from using a good medicine so that one day, perhaps, everybody can use the good medicine."

Note: Dr Ethan Russo explores the frontiers of ethnobotany and cannabis consciousness.


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