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Cannabinoids are potent antibiotics against MRSA: why the neglect?

Updated on June 20, 2012

All the major cannabinoids, which are found in the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa, have been shown to be powerful antibiotics. What is more, they have been shown to be effective against the "superbug" MRSA.

What is MRSA

MRSA is the abbreviation for methicillin-resistant Stapylococcus aureus.

Stapylococcus aureus bacteria are widespread and can live on the skin and in the throat and nose of healthy people without causing any problems. At most, they might cause pimples or the skin disease impetigo.

However, if Stapylococcus aureus succeeds in penetrating into the interior of the body, for example, through a wound or surgical incision, it can cause serious conditions. These include infections of the blood (sepsis), soft tissue (cellulitis), lungs (pneumonia) or heart (endocarditis).

Although these conditions are serious, and can be life-threatening if left untreated, they are usually cured by a course of antibiotics. Methicillin is a potent antibiotic from the penicillin family that can often be used successfully to treat Stapylococcus aureus infections.

MRSA bacteria magnified 9560x

By Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, strains of Stapylococcus aureus have emerged, which are resistant to methicillin.

The immune system of healthy people can deal even with MRSA. However, elderly people, patients subjected to cancer chemotherapy or major surgery, people with AIDS, organ transplant recipients, young children and others with a weaker immune system are unable to fight this superbug.

MRSA infections cause serious problems and many deaths in hospitals and care homes. For this reason, MRSA is classed as a serious risk for public health. According to data published by the Center for Disease Control in 2007, over 18,500 hospital deaths per year in the USA are due to MRSA. The costs of direct healthcare are increased by up to $9.7 billion per year because of MRSA.

Antibiotic activity of Cannabis sativa

Attention is often focused on the traditional religious uses of cannabis, which relate to its psychoactive properties (i.e. the effect on mental processes and mood). However, it also has a long history of medicinal use. This includes a recognition of its antiseptic, antibacterial properties in the ancient cultures of Africa, Greece and the Middle East.

Western scientists started investigating these antiseptic properties in the 1950s. Preparations made from the plant were shown to be very effective antiseptics when applied to the skin or inside the mouth. They were also active against tuberculosis.

At that time, not enough was known about the constituents of the plant to be able to identify which ones were responsible. However, in the 1970s-1980s researchers showed that it is cannabinoids and their precursors, which provide the antimicrobial activity. These include cannabichromene, cannabigerol and cannabidiol, which are not psychoactive, as well as Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is.

In 2008, scientists from three centres in Italy and the School of Pharmacy at the University of London, UK, published the results of a joint study. This was a structure-activity study, which aimed to find out exactly which chemical structures on the cannabinoids give them their antimicrobial activity.

They found that the cannabinoids Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol, cannabigerol, cannabichromene and cannabinol all have very potent antibiotic activity against various strains of Staphylococcus aureus. The activity was exceptionally high when tested with the multidrug-resistant (MDR) SA-1199B. Another very important result is the potent activity against two strains responsible for MRSA, namely EMRSA-15 and EMRSA-16. These two strains are the main culprits for MRSA epidemics in hospitals in the UK.

Cannabis abusers do not benefit from cannabinoid antibiotic properties

The results of the Italian-UK study have been widely disseminated by campaigners for legalising the use of cannabis. They argue that there is a potential health benefit because the cannabinoids will protect users against bacterial infection.

However, the whole plant contains many other components, some of which may have deleterious effects. In addition, the tars in the inhaled smoke will certainly be injurious.

Cannabis abusers have been found to suffer from infections more frequently than non-users. One study from the School of Medicine at University College Los Angeles showed that lung macrophages from marijuana smokers are less efficient in killing Staphylococcus aureus than macrophages from complete non-smokers or tobacco smokers. The same research group also found that Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) inhibits the activity of T cells and thus lowers the immune response.

Cannabinoids remain an unexploited resource in the fight against MRSA

The authors of the Italian-UK study gave a number of reasons why more attention should be given to developing the use of cannabinoids as antibiotics and antiseptics.

  1. Antibiotic activity is present in cannabinoids such as cannabidiol and cannabigerol which are not psychoactive.
  2. Cross-resistance between antibiotics obtained from plants and the commonly used antibiotics, which are obtained from microorganisms, is extremely rare.
  3. Even more importantly, the study showed that cannabinoids would not be affected by the most common ways in which bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics
  4. The chemical structures responsible for the antibiotic activity are tolerant to being modified. This leads the authors to suggest a further use for cannabinoids as antibacterial agents in cosmetics and toiletries. They would make cheap and biodegradable alternatives to less potent synthetic preservatives, which are not as safe and not as environmentally friendly.

Obviously, further work would be required to confirm these results. In addition, safety and efficacy studies would need to be conducted, first in animals and then in humans before it was possible to register cannabinoid products as antiseptics/antibiotics.

Nevertheless, there is no obvious evidence whatsoever that these findings have been taken up by the pharmaceutical industry, despite the fact that it has developed cannabinoid preparations for other uses. No newer studies on cannabinoids as antibiotics appear to have been published. The US and EU clinical trials registers show a few current trials of the use of cannibinoids in multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, but none focusing on their use as antibiotics.

It is a mystery why this potential resource against the huge public health problem of MRSA has not been placed on a fast-track R&D pathway.


Appendino, G, Gibbons S, Giana A, Pagani A, Grassi G, Stavri M, Smith E and Rahman M.M
Antibacterial cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa: a structure-activity study
J. Nat. Prod. 2008 71(8): 1427-1430 Full text

Roth MD, Whittaker K, Salehi K, Tashkin DP, Baldwin GC
Mechanisms for impaired effector function in alveolar macrophages from marijuana and cocaine smokers.
J. Neuroimmunol, 2004 Feb; 147(1-2):82-86 Abstract on PubMed

Roth MD, Baldwin GC, Tashkin DP
Effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol on human immune function and host defense.
Chem Phys Lipids 2002 Dec 31; 121(1-2): 229-239 Abstract on PubMed


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    • watergeek profile image

      Susette Horspool 

      7 years ago from Pasadena CA

      The inactive variety is industrial hemp, which barely contains THC (the "active" ingredient) and in addition carries an ingredient that cancels the effect of THC. This is the one used for the products you mention in the article. Marijuana cannabis is a smaller, softer, bushier variety that contains a high concentration of THC and is not as hardy.

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      I recently saw packs of hempseed in the baking goods aisle of a supermarket. Apparently, they are produced from an "inactive" variety of the plant and do not contain any of the ingredients that give a high. I don't know how that would impact on their antibacterial properties.

      About 20 years ago, someone I knew had an idea to set up a business producing hemp seed butter. He gave up on the idea after destroying several food processors because the seeds are so tough! However, I see such products are now commercially available.

    • watergeek profile image

      Susette Horspool 

      7 years ago from Pasadena CA

      Or cannabis brownies (lol). I wonder if hempseed would have the same antibiotic effect? Seems like it would be safer to eat hempseed than smoke the leaves.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California


      At least some of the tobacco smoke carcinogens--like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons--are generic for burning plant leaves. That's why the researcher's first investigation was almost guaranteed to generate a publishable and politically acceptable result.

      Back in my dark experimental days, marijuana was not cut with tobacco--at least not in California. That must be a British custom.

      Given my experience with the infamous 'Munchies', here's one more suggestion for future research: Cannabis 'tea' to treat anorexia!

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      That's interesting, Larry. I was taught in my toxicology classes that the main problem was the fact that tobacco is added and hence you get the tobacco carcinogens in the smoke. They didn't tell us of anti-cancer properties, however I was a student a long, long time ago and the research had probably not yet been done.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      Great hub. Voted up and interesting. I remember reading something about cannabis and cancer, but I don't remember the source.

      Anyway, a researcher found that cannabis smoke contains some of the same carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. Old saying: Never perform an experiment, unless you already know what the outcome will be. The powers that be patted him on the head, and said, "Good boy."

      For a follow-up investigation, the researcher ignored the old adage, and found that cannabis smokers, who were not also tobacco smokers, did not have higher-than-normal lung cancer rates. The take-home message: Cannabis contains one or more powerful anti-carcinogens.

      By the way, my recreational drug of choice is chocolate.

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image


      8 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Very interesting research. As a self-described 'abuser' as mentioned above in the Italian would appear this will not benefit me, however...I also don't have staph (busy looking for wood to knock on). It does seem to be on the rise in this area so I am attempting to stay out of hospitals and prisons. Thank you for the info! Voted Up, interesting and useful.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 

      8 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      Very interesting. Manuka honey will also help treat MRSA

    • nextstopjupiter profile image


      8 years ago from here, there and everywhere

      When you use cannabis to treat MRSA {and other diseases} the pharma mafia who pays the politicians would lose a lot of money.

    • Tenerife Islander profile image

      Steve Andrews 

      8 years ago from Tenerife

      The cannabis plant provides just about everything we need - medicine, fuel, food, clothing, fibres, etc but at the same time it is made illegal, demonised and prevented from being widely used for these purposes!

    • slmorgan profile image


      8 years ago from San Francisco

      I have seen difficult cases of MRSA in the hospital years ago. I hope cannabinoids are helpful in the treatment of this very serious and aggressive nosocomial infection.Interesting / informative. Well written.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This is a very interesting very well-written article and I don't see why they wouldn't do the research if there was even a glimmer of hope as the MRSA problem is huge. This serious infection caused by mother to become an amputee after they did surgery on her ankle.

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      I see your point, Peter. However, there are already cannabinoid preparations for other uses, implying the ability to patent exists as well as commercial viability. Given the massive scale of the MRSA problem, I can't see how this would not be commercially viable, even if it was found that use had to be restricted to external applications such as skin rinses.

    • PETER LUMETTA profile image


      8 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

      There must be a monetery or legal reason it is not being done. If they can't patent it or monetize it then they don't want to do anything with it. Thanks for the info,



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