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The Straight Dope 

Tired of the euphoria, anxiety and crash from being stoned? Nonpsychoactive cannabidiol supplies health benefits without the typical effects of THC

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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).

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