Medical marijuana has gotten a bad rap in Northern California, and perhaps for good reason. In Marin and Sonoma counties, the cannabis dispensaries that haven't yet been shut down are often located near adult video "shoppes" and liquor stores, and are guarded by surly bouncers who buzz people in from behind bulletproof glass. Dispensary logos typically feature a red cross backlit by a neon pot leaf, with maybe the image of a wheelchair and the word "compassion" squeezed in somewhere; meanwhile, a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" atmosphere pervades many a dispensary waiting area, filled as they are with a high number of male "patients" between the ages of 18 and 40 who are here to be treated for "back pain" and "insomnia," their prescriptions written by doctors who advertise in the classifieds and on billboards. It's not surprising that the boundary between recreational and medicinal cannabis can sometimes seem as hazy as the interior of a reggae dance hall.
That smoky haze is about to clear. New research in medical marijuana is shocking scientists in the industry right out of their white lab coats, and its implications for treating medical conditions that range from cancer to schizophrenia are poised to take the federal government by storm.
If THC is marijuana's quintessential party girl, a lesser known molecule called cannabidiol (CBD) is her quieter littler sister, a new wave wonder child with a good-girl twist. Not only has CBD shown seemingly supernatural effects on a variety of ailments, it is nonpsychoactive, moderating the euphoric "stony" effects of THC and allowing patients to use their medicine without ending up on the couch all day watching whole seasons of Weeds.
Cannabis Through the Ages
To better understand the CBD revelation, let us first take a stroll down Mary Jane Lane with the help of a new book. Smoke Signals, a vast compendium on cannabis by Healdsburg resident Martin Lee, is just out from Scribner. Diminutive with a shock of mad-scientist hair and a perpetual look of bemusement, Lee is an investigative journalist and one of the founders of the organization FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Equal parts social history, compelling research and political commentary, Smoke Signals is populated with the artists, writers and thinkers for whom cannabis lit a green fuse of inspiration—from Balzac to Baudelaire, the Beatles to Bob Dylan—as well as the scientists and activists who have doggedly fought to liberate the perennially misunderstood Dona Juanita.
In his initial research, Lee was simply trying to understand why California law enforcement continues to harass and bust medical marijuana patients after the passage of Proposition 215, which legalized use of the herb (with a doctor's prescription) for a handful of ailments. Along the way, he learned of the plant's "rich cultural history involving poetry, music, science, medicine, law and many other elements." He also discovered groundbreaking research into the medical use of cannabis. "The science is amazing and little known outside of academic circles," says Lee. "I felt it important to draw attention to marijuana's underreported medicinal attributes."
The pot narrative began 6,000 years ago. First cultivated in the Hindu Kush region near China, invading Aryan tribes brought it to India where it was associated with the Hindu god Shiva, and was smoked, ingested and made into fuel, cloth and rope. After observing its usefulness in the East, W. B. O'Shaughnessy introduced cannabis to the West in the 1800s, where it was listed in The United States Pharmacopeia and the National Formulary until the 1930s. Prescribed for over a hundred ailments, marijuana was ingested by our grandparents in the cough remedies, nervines and analgesics common in the day and bought from such upstanding establishments as Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Lee's book describes how during the Great Depression the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics found itself without budget or scapegoat, inspiring the agency's director, Harry Anslinger, to fashion himself into a righteous anti-pot crusader, erroneously classifying the plant as a narcotic and fabricating the reefer madness propaganda that today is lampooned on T-shirts and posters.
Anslinger gave his government-sanctioned agenda a blatantly racist top-spin. "Reefer," he said, "makes darkies think they are as good as white men," causes "white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes" and inspires the creation of "Satanic music of Jazz and Swing." The bureau also linked the herb with insanity and claimed a direct correlation between marijuana and violence, and even death.
The U.S. government's policy on cannabis has hardly budged in 80 years, despite the findings of numerous committees, here and in Britain, such as the La Guardia and Wootton reports, and results from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, headed by Raymond Shafer in the early 1970s. All confirm what generations of marijuana users have always known: that there is no connection between pot and any illness or disorder (other than a tendency among some slackers toward excessively vegetal behavior).
Good Green Medicine
Modern research in medical marijuana began in 1964, with the isolation and synthesis of marijuana's controversial molecule, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol—better known as THC—by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, who also discovered a vital chemical-signaling system in the body with which THC interacts. Composed of naturally produced molecules called endocannabinoids (often called "the body's own marijuana") and their corresponding receptor sites, this unique system influences appetite, mood, memory and pain sensation.
Here's the magic: marijuana contains its own inherent cannabinoids that mimic and enhance those in the body with potency and complexity. Like a pantheon of superheroes, these phytocannabinoids and their sidekicks—the terpenes and flavanoids—create an "entourage effect," a team effort that regulates, modulates, stimulates and protects virtually every cell in the body.
While the THC in marijuana has been shown to have powerful biological effects on the body, especially in the areas of pain and inflammation, cannabidiol is now taking center stage. Recent findings based on preclinical and human studies show that CBD has anti-inflammatory, antipsychotic, anticonvulsant, anti-tumorigenic and analgesic properties. Cannabidiol kicks serious booty against cancer, as well as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and multiple sclerosis. It helps prevent and treat heart disease, diabetes and stroke, and appears to improve such psychological conditions as schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, depression and ADHD, often working better than the drugs typically prescribed, and with virtually no side effects. Cannabidiol has even been shown in vitro to be effective against the difficult-to-treat bacterial infection MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
One of those on the forefront of CBD science, Dr. Sean D. McAllister, works at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, where his studies have shown cannabidiol's devastating effect on human cancer cells. Like a ninja assassin, CBD targets these renegade cells and systemically weakens, starves, stops them from spreading and reproducing, and, McAllister reports, ultimately kills them off.
"What's different here [versus] conventional cancer drugs," says McAllister, "is that cannabinoids have a very low toxicity profile, so they cause few side effects."
McAllister found that CBD behaves differently than THC in the body. "The CBD molecule itself does not interact efficiently with endocannabinoid receptors," he explains. "However, it does interact with other biological pathways."
In his cancer studies, McAllister used synthetic CBD produced by a British firm for research purposes, but he is interested in continuing his work with a whole plant extract. Currently, he's testing the hypothesis that THC and CBD work in concert, and mentions evidence showing that the terpenes and flavanoids in whole cannabis also have a modulating effect.
"There are many anecdotal reports on the usefulness of the whole marijuana plant," says McAllister. "Preclinical evidence backs them up."
Unfortunately, nobody has yet offered funding to McAllister for whole-plant cannabis research. "There is a history among pharmaceutical companies not to get into plant extracts because they are so hard to patent," he said.
Sativex is the only clinically tested and standardized whole-plant cannabis extract currently available on the world market. Manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals in a secret location somewhere in the English countryside, it is approved for use in Britain, France and Canada, though not in the United States. Sativex contains a one-to-one ratio of CBD to THC, radically different than currently popular strains with their skyrocketing THC content and often negligible CBD. The company has animated videos that illustrate the difference between treating illness using synthetic drugs (side effects) and cannabinoids (few side effects).
A Kinder Kine
A growing number of medicinal marijuana users are gravitating toward these new CBD-rich strains, and some dispensaries are catching on. In the pot-friendly community of Sebastopol—where a yearly "harvest" festival hosts revelers in full hemp regalia, sparking spliffs and jamming to didgeridoo—the local dispensary Peace in Medicine offers educational literature explaining the benefits of CBD.
"We have thousands of active members," says Peace in Medicine's general manager Johnny Nolan. "They live normal lives with jobs and families. Before, they had to put up with THC when they needed the benefits of the medicine. With CBD they have more options."
Patient consultant Royce Park, who in typical dispensary-speak talks of "patients" who "medicate" using "flowers," certainly knows his science. Park regularly attends conferences and keeps up with the latest studies to help patients choose cannabis strains for their individual needs. Park himself prefers to medicate with CBD-rich cannabis, finding it "very functional."
Cannabidiol users contacted through a medicinal-cannabis support group report a markedly different experience than what is typically associated with weed. "Relaxed, yet focused and alert," said one user. Another described smoking CBD as "marijuana with a seat belt." One person reported, "CBD gives me a perfect balance: a nice body high where the stress and aches get smoothed out, while leaving my mind calm and present."
"For me," said a CBD-rich cannabis grower, "the biggest advantage to CBD is its ability to relieve anxiety. For someone with an active mind and a difficult personal history, anxiety is always present. When I use CBD, relaxation sets up a base camp, guarded by a sentinel with arms folded who allows no trouble or fear to get close. CBD makes room for good things to happen."
Research into CBD-rich cannabis continues. Martin Lee recently attended a conference in Germany where scientists presented new information documenting CBD's ability to stop the proliferation of colon cancer cells and to limit traumatic brain injury caused by strokes. "Using cannabis in any form can have positive health benefits, regardless of the user's intention," says Lee. "CBD-rich pot is especially powerful." Along with Fred Gardener, Lee cofounded Project CBD, "a nonprofit educational service dedicated to promoting and publicizing research into the medicinal potential of cannabidiol."
Yet CBD-high weed is still very difficult to source, even in California, where new cannabis strains are developed as often as wine varietals. With the recent forced closure of so many dispensaries, those left standing struggle to keep a steady CBD supply. Peace in Medicine's Park admits the dispensary can't obtain enough of it to satisfy demand, as cultivators have yet to catch on to this less psychotropic pot. While CBD continues to show immense promise in the lab, cannabis remains firmly entombed in the federal government's airless mausoleum of Schedule I controlled substances, while speed and meth are granted the lesser classification of Schedule II, and alcohol, in seeming disregard of the number of crimes and deaths associated with its use, is hardly controlled at all.
It appears that cannabis researchers and activists will continue to push legitimate medical science—like a humongous green boulder—up a relentlessly steep bureaucratic hill, and maybe for a very long time. Still, there is hope.
"Facts don't necessarily influence policy makers," says McAllister, "but I do believe that over time, facts will push government policy in the right direction."
"The science shows that CBD is a potent medicine," he says. "It is also a potent myth-buster. It explodes the myth that medical marijuana is just for stoners."
It's a sentiment we might do well to put in our pipe and smoke.