‘We must bring the plant to the physician’
Although he has retired, Rudolf Brenneisen’s mission – the re-medicalisation of cannabis – has not come to an end. Mr Brenneisen gives lectures, talks to the press and leads the Swiss Taskforce for Cannabinoids in Medicine (STCM), for which he himself organises a biannual congress. His motto is to develop, interpret and share scientific knowledge. “We must bring the plant to the physician.”
“This is the last time I’ll be doing this on my own”, said Rudolf Brenneisen on the eve of third STCM congress around the middle of January.
“I really enjoy organising a congress and the previous ones demonstrated that scientific meetings about medicinal cannabis meet a need, but it is too much work for one person.
Furthermore, I’m retired and need to focus on my hobbies. There is more to life than cannabis.”
That wasn’t always the case. The curriculum of Rudolf Brenneisen (Bern, 1949) comes down to nearly 40 years of acquiring and sharing knowledge of the medicinal potential of cannabis. It began and ended at the University of Bern, where he started as a researcher at the Institute of Pharmacy in 1975 and where he retired as Professor of Phytochemistry and Pharmacognosy of the Department of Research in 2014. Not surprising, because Mr Brenneisen’s country of birth has a rich tradition in the area of phytotherapy and cannabis was one of the plants that was offered as being beneficial way back in the last century. “My first research was focused on the pharmaceutical potential of blueberries”, remembers Mr Brenneisen. “At some point in my Pharmacy study I was allowed to compose a cannabis preparation for corns and that generated my interest in the cannabis plant. I wondered whether the qualities of this ‘folk medicine’ could be translated to pharmacy. At the same time, I was extremely aware of the controversy surrounding cannabis and the risks of excess consumption. It became clear to me that you to have maintain a strict separation between medicinal and recreational use of cannabis – and the discussion about it.”
From forensic to medical
In the 1970s, Mr Brenneisen took his first steps as a cannabis scientist, but in the forensic sphere. On the instructions of the Swiss Drogenpolizei he was at the cradle of a reliable method for determining the THC content of cannabis, and then moved to the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Oxford Mississippi, where together with Professor Mahmoud ElSohly he worked on the chemical fingerprint (terpenoids profiling) of the cannabis plant and its active components (cannabinoids). This knowledge brought Mr Brenneisen to the laboratory of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in McLean, Virginia around the middle of the 1980s. A beautifully framed certificate on the wall in Mr Brenneisen’s office in Bern serves as a daily reminder of that period. In the end, a pilot study with muscle-spasm patients brought the Swiss cannabis specialist back to his country of birth.
“That was a definite move from forensic to medical science”, said Mr Brenneisen. “That study, where initially two patients were treated with THC, proved to be a milestone in cannabis research. The study was scaled up to several patients and actually opened the door to clinical studies of cannabis in Switzerland. Perhaps even in the rest of the world, because after that many trials were started up in the area of neurological disorders, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and pain.”
With nearly 40 years of forensic and medical-scientific research, Rudolf Brenneisen has been referred to as the ‘cannabis papst’ (cannabis pope) more than once. Perhaps because he has fervently expressed his belief in the medicinal potential of cannabis, albeit a little unorthodox at times. Perhaps because he had an unchanging mission; making sure that cannabis returned to the pharmacies, where it deserves a place alongside all other prescription medication. Therefore Mr Brenneisen prefers to talk about the ‘re-medicalisation’ of cannabis. “It cannot be right that patients who benefit from cannabis have to go to the street or the internet to buy their ‘medication’ from the illegal circuit. For patients, who suffer enough as it is, it constitutes a possible criminal offence as well as a health risk. Practice has demonstrated time and again that you simply do not know what you are using. In my view, quality and safety are paramount and therefore a scientific, pharmaceutical approach is essential. I’m not a ‘cannabis pope’. I do not belong to the group of people who believe that everything from nature is good for your health by definition. And I’m not a catholic either (laughs). However, I do believe in medicinal cannabis and by now there is scientific information to support that belief.”
There continues to be a massive call for scientific evidence. Not just for patients and doctors, but for health insurance companies, regulatory bodies and politicians – they are all waiting. Mr Brenneisen commented “It starts with patients. Over the years, plenty of anecdotal evidence has been gathered and although that is promising, ultimately the doctor or specialist need to understand it and believe in it, because they are closest to the patient. Therefore we need hard, clinical facts and everybody knows that is not easy because it costs time and money. Back to me; whether I will live to see the actual re-medicalisation of cannabis remains to be seen, but steps are being taken across the globe.”
The attention for the medicinal use of cannabis has taken flight worldwide, and more and more countries are considering legal use by patients or are working on setting up a programme. The European Parliament recently made some statements, the World Health Organisation formulated recommendations, and medical-scientific research of cannabis has taken off. The retired Swiss Professor turns 70 this year and according to pension law he no longer has to worry, but he still does. “I simply still find it absolutely incredible to see how versatile a cannabis plant is and how many scientific questions medicinal cannabis produces, although I do struggle with the wholesale mystification that is taking place. That has been the case for CBD for quite some time. It is marketed aggressively as a food supplement or lifestyle product, and consumers go for it en masse. That is simply the result of a lack of knowledge. Cannabis – and I’m talking about the entire plant here – is a natural product with medicinal potential, it is not a panacea. We also know it carries risks. We need to get rid of stigmatization, but also of glorification. At the same time there are so many questions to answer, and that demands a scientific approach. What is the ideal formula of cannabis as medication and what does the endocannabinoid system do? Should we be looking for medication with an isolated active substance or is it actually the combination of cannabinoids that is making the difference? What is the ideal administration method? There is plenty of research of all those questions and I still find it fascinating and useful to bring all that knowledge together and to share it with the world.”
In order to stay involved Rudolf Brenneisen is still linked with the Swiss Task Force for Cannabinoids in Medicine (STCM) and the Schweizerische Akademie der Pharmazeutischen Wissenschaften, for which he organises the biannual scientific congress himself. This year (2019) is the third congress and is quite a job, barely leaving time for other hobbies, such as exploring the American highways on a Harley Davidson or listening to the famous twelve bar blues of the English rock band Status Quo. “On one Saturday we try to get as many healthcare professionals, scientists, patients, politicians and other stakeholders together and this year they come from 19 different countries. It underlines massive global interest,” said Mr Brenneisen. “Continuing to develop, interpret, and share objective, scientific knowledge of real importance is something I like to contribute to. This also motivated me to act as editor in chief of the new open access journal ‘Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids’.”