Scientists have identified that a type of moss could have similar effects to cannabis, currently being investigated for treating cramps, nausea and inflammatory diseases, but with less chance of being abused.

Swiss researchers from the University of Bern are exploring the effects of a chemical known as perrottetinene, with a similar structure to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical in cannabis that causes users to get “high”.

Perrorttetinene is only produced by a group of liverwort moss species, collectively known as radula, which is only found naturally in Japan, New Zealand and Costa Rica, the scientists said.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday, tested samples from the moss Radula perrottetii in mice and found it had effects that might make it a useful alternative to THC.

“This natural substance has a weaker psychoactive effect and, at the same time, is capable of inhibiting inflammatory processes in the brain,” said Andrea Chicca, part of the team at the university’s Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine.

More trials would be needed in animal models and humans to establish whether these effects translate into reduced pain or other symptoms, and whether it has any other harmful effects.

However, a weaker psychoactive high means that it is less likely the plant could be abused recreationally and could avoid legal restrictions that have held back the use of medicinal cannabis products in many countries.

The Home Office recently announced legislations to reclassify cannabis, meaning it can be prescribed by doctors from 1 November on a case-by-case basis.

This was in recognition of its potential medicinal benefits and has opened the door to help people with conditions like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea in chemotherapy.

As well as THC, cannabis contains a number of other chemicals known as cannabinoids, which have complex effects on users that are not widely understood – in part because of restrictions on research.

Prior to 1994 the Cannabis sativa plant was thought to be the only naturally occurring source of these cannabinoid chemicals, with THC being the most potent.

But in the Nineties, Japanese researchers identified that these mosses produce a substance with similar molecular makeup to THC, and dubbed it perrottetinene, but didn’t investigate its effects.

“It’s astonishing that only two species of plants, separated by 300 million years of evolution, produce psychoactive cannabinoids,” said Professor Jurg Gertsch, who led the latest study.

While scientists might have ignored the mosses’ potential, the authors had previously identified that Radula marginata, a species of the moss native to New Zealand and Tasmania, is “currently sold via the internet as an emerging recreational drug”.

They add that whether or not it actually produces any cannabis-like effects is a subject of much debate among the online legal high communities – and the researchers said this would need to be investigated in future trials as well.

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