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MYTH OR MEDICINE: Cannabis derivative CBD is trendy, but does it live up to the hype?


To paraphrase a famous line from “Forrest Gump”: CBD is like a box of chocolates … you never know what you’re gonna get.

CBD products — cannabidiol, one of two primary components found in marijuana plants that doesn’t have the psychoactive effects of its sister compound, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) — are the latest rage in holistic and all-natural remedies. Because it doesn’t get users high, it’s found a niche as everything from treatment for depression to pain management to relief from epileptic seizures; and to be fair, some of those treatments are backed up by scientific data.

It’s also becoming big business, both in states that have legalized marijuana sales and those where weed is still illegal but have made exceptions for CBD products. The problem, however, is that there’s no federal oversight for CBD, says Ben Cort, the author of the book “Weed Inc.” and a Colorado resident who’s been researching all things weed-related, from the legalized marijuana trade to the potency of new developments in THC production.

What that means is that in many cases, the CBD products actually sold may have nothing to do with cannabidiol whatsoever.

A problematic ‘product’

“One of the biggest problems we’ve got is that people are taking CBD, and it doesn’t have anything to do with CBD,” Cort says. “I’ve seen people rewrapping Bengay and selling it for $80. Some of these people are sending some pepperminty, tea tree oil kind of thing and saying, ‘It’s totally CBD! Who says different?’ You have a totally unregulated market, and that makes CBD a giant question. Who knows what it is?”

Examples: In May, CBS News reported that “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that synthetic products falsely labeled as cannabidiol, or CBD, sickened as many as 52 people from October through January.” Also in May, WREG-TV reported that after a woman bought CBD oil in Memphis purportedly marketed by Beyond Botanicals, the company said “a smoke shop in the Memphis area has been making these counterfeits and selling them to other smoke shops.” And in August, WBTV reported that a vape store clerk was charged after a Mooresville, N.C., student overdosed on fake CBD oil.

But when there’s money to be made, there are those willing to skirt the law in order to make it, Cort says, especially in states like Tennessee, where marijuana, medical or otherwise, is illegal, but hemp-derived CBD products are legal, and marijuana-derived CBD products with no more than .9 percent THC are legal with a prescription. In those states, Cort points out, those products tend to be a great deal more profitable than in ones where recreational marijuana is legal.

“There’s money to be made in it in limited setup, but for the most part, when you have a market like Colorado that supports both THC and CBD, it’s like selling decaf vs. caffeinated coffee,” he says. “I’m totally sure Starbucks sells decaf; I’ve just never ordered one. But when you have a state like Tennessee or North Carolina, where you can’t get anything but the CBD, if you can create an absolute hysteria around it fixing everything, then hell yeah, there’s money to be made in it, especially if it’s not what they say it is.”

So what is CBD?

Pot 101: Cannabis plants are usually classified as either industrial hemp or marijuana. Both are species of cannabis sativa, both share a similar appearance and both have given birth to burgeoning markets. The difference is the amount of THC: Marijuana plants have anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent (although some potent, lab-grown strains can go even higher) THC, and they’re grown specifically for the purposes of recreational use. Industrial hemp usually has no more than .3 percent THC, is legal in all 50 states and has a number of industrial uses, from soap to concrete to auto parts and more. However: CBD oil can be extracted from marijuana, so there’s some confusion about what kind of CBD is actually being sold over the counter in states like Tennessee.

“Consider the process: First, someone has to grow a very low-potency, high-level CBD plant that’s basically hemp, and that takes a lot longer to grow,” Cort says. “That’s about a four-month growth cycle, and you’ve got to let them get pretty big. The best way to extract the oil, unless you have a closed-loop extraction system, is through cold-pressing, like with olive oil. You’re talking about a huge amount of work to extract oil from organic material.

“So if you’re doing this, and you know there’s a market for it, and there’s no federal oversight or anything to it, and it’s taken you a painstaking several months to extract a liter of CBD to take to the market — you’re going to cut it with everything on the planet to maximize your profits!”

There are, however, certain CBD-based drugs that have been given the official Food and Drug Administration blessing: The FDA approved a cannabidiol-based drug called Epidiolex in October for “treatment of two rare and serious forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, that begin in childhood but can persist in adulthood,” according to National Public Radio. It’s not the first cannabis-based medication on the drug market; in the 1980s, Marinol was approved as a drug to treat AIDS symptoms, but it’s derived from a synthetic form of THC called dronabinol. Another cannabinoid-based medication, Sativex, is approved for use in other countries to treat spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis, and clinical trials are under way by GW Pharmaceuticals to open up the American market.

‘Artisanal medicine that’s often not medicine’

Ben Cort

Given the controversy surrounding Big Pharma and drugs, however, doesn’t mean that CBD consumers would rather have pharmaceutical-grade products.

“The problem is, we’ve completely and totally lost confidence in Big Pharma, so nobody’s taking that stuff seriously, and so we end up with this artisanal medicine that’s often not medicine,” Cort says. “If you look at double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, you’ll find that it has some remarkable anti-convulsive properties, particularly with two disorders that affect young people. We know we will see some significant improvement with these drugs that do have CBD in it. We’ve even seen the shrinking of very specific kinds of cancer cells, particularly in the brain, with very, very particular synthesized strains of CBD.

“But when it comes to describing medications anecdotally, we have to understand the placebo effect. When we talk about the efficacy side of medication, you do better if you believe that you’re going to do better, plain and simple. So when someone says to me, ‘Hey, man, my best friend has fill-in-the-blank, and he’s getting great relief from CBD,’ I don’t fight it or say anything except, ‘I’m really glad to hear that; make sure your friend gets true CBD.’ Because the reality is that if we believe we’re feeling better, we end up feeling better, and think that’s what’s going in with CBD.

“I would tell anybody to go back to the stuff our mom taught us,” he adds. “If you hear something too good to be true, it very well may be.”

From ‘toxic’ to tonic

The problem is that there’s been a great deal of seemingly “too-good-to-be-true” claims made about CBD over the past several years. According to the Investing News Network, cannabidiol was first isolated by a team of chemists at the University of Illinois in 1940; originally described as a toxic compound, it wasn’t until 1963 that another group of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem diagrammed its exact structure, opening up the way for research of CBD in medicine and science. Brazilian researchers discovered that it reduced the symptoms of epilepsy in animals in 1973, and over the next decade and a half, it began to be looked at as a means of therapeutic medicine.

It wasn’t until 2011 that it began to get widespread attention, when a high CBD/low THC strain known as “Charlotte’s Web” was developed. Named for Charlotte Figi, born in 2006, it was credited for reducing the number of seizures caused by Dravet Syndrome — up to 300 grand mal seizures a week — and was highlighted in a 2013 CNN special titled “Weed.” Her story attracted media attention around the world, and ever since that time, CBD has grown from a chemical compound with promise to a cure-all for any number of ailments.

“I think we’ve always had, especially in (recovery) circles, a desire to find the thing that’s going to fix ‘it,’” Cort says. “I think there’s been example after example over the years, and this is maybe just another one of those, because in all practicality, we’ve found limited uses through actual evidence instead of hyperbole.”

Over the past couple of years, CBD has exploded in popularity among holistic and alternative medicine circles. Actress Mandy Moore of the hit NBC series “This Is Us” credited it with alleviating pain from wearing high heels at the Golden Globe Awards in January; in July, country music icon Willie Nelson introduced a line of CBD-infused coffee beans called “Willie’s Remedy”; in October, respected celebrity physician Dr. Sanjay Gupta sang its praises on “The Dr. Oz Show”: “I think there is a legitimate medicine here,” he said. “We’re talking about something that could really help people.”

From bath products to vape oils to creams to cigarettes to everything else, CBD is now being hailed as a product that Cort agrees sounds suspiciously like the snake oil of the Old West: a product of mysterious origin, the medicinal properties of which defy logic.

“If you were to apply critical and rational thought to this, you would say that in all likelihood, the thing that is going to cure childhood epilepsy is not going to fix menstrual cramps, or the thing that cures cancer is not going to fix glaucoma,” he says. “But I think that’s just human nature. We want something to fix ‘it.’ I think people want something to believe in, and maybe I’m simplifying the whole thing, but I think it comes back to that hope we all have that some form of alchemy is going to make gold come about from different materials, or that some sort of magic words will unlock the genie.

“It’s human nature; it’s embedded in us to seek some sort of panacea. We decide, ‘This is it,’ and for some reason, when things like CBD come along, we sort of lose our individual minds collectively. “

A hazy future

As of this writing, there is only one FDA-approved CBD product on the market: The prescription drug Epidiolex. It’s not protected from federal regulation — in May, a federal court declined to protect cannabidiol from federal law enforcement — but it’s also not something that meets FDA requirements. As such, there’s little to hold manufacturers accountable for what’s sold as CBD.

“I do see additional oversight and regulation by the feds as something that’s going to happen, especially if we’re going to move away from classifying (cannabis) from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug,” Cort says. “We have to have a clear definition of what is actually CBD, and we have to keep manufacturers accountable so that you don’t have them selling olive oil for $80 and saying it’s CBD. Right now, there’s nothing in the world to stop me from handing you a glass of tea and saying it’s CBD tea — nothing except personal integrity.”

And that doesn’t even get into the debate about federal vs. state oversight. Although federally cannabis is listed as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, over the past several years, all but two states (South Dakota and Idaho) have moved toward some measure of decriminalization. It’s legal in 10 states, legal for medical use in 22 states and legal for medical use with limited THC content in the rest. However, because of federal restrictions, shipping it across state lines is still technically a felony, Cort points out.
Furthermore, use of CBD by those in recovery can set off alarm bells — not because it’s a “drug” in the traditional sense of getting the user high, but because it can send a mixed message.

“The most important thing, when we’re talking about CBD, especially for those of us in recovery, is that it not be used interchangeably with marijuana,” says Cort, who got clean and sober in 1996. “People who want to try and use this for help with some sort of ailment want to make sure there’s trace amounts of THC and plenty of CBD so that there’s no intoxicating effect, because the message we don’t want to deliver is that high levels of THC is medicine. That would confuse people, and I think it’s a better idea to call it CBD and not ‘medical marijuana.’”

To be clear, Cort doesn’t claim to be an expert on CBD — in fact, he strongly encourages anyone interested in it to do their own research and draw their own conclusions, and to talk to a well-informed medical professional. It’s a complex issue, to be sure, and despite all of the pros and cons, the future of CBD is unknown. Even for a guy who spends his time giving talks and lectures around the country and who’s forgotten more about weed than the entire cast of “Half Baked,” an sort of attempt to elicit answers from the crystal ball of cannabis future is a murky one.

“I don’t know what happens,” he says. “I don’t know if it becomes so ingrained in our culture that we decide it’s good for everything, or that 10 years from now, we’re like, ‘What a bunch of idiots we were!’ There’s just not enough research at the present time to make that determination.”

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