Preface: At the time of this writing, there is a healthy debate raging among the populous of the Great State of Utah about the merits and evils of the Cannabis Sativa plant. With 25 states and the District of Columbia legalizing medical marijuana and another 17 states legalizing products high in CBD and low in THC (more on that distinction in a moment), it is a debate that has affected most of America over the past 22 years since California first made medical marijuana legal.
My intention in this post is NOT to weigh in on the politics of this plant but rather on what we know and don’t know about its biological effects. This topic is huge, so I will focus mainly on the effects of one of the two primary phytochemicals found in the cannabis plant called CBD.
A Brief History of Cannabis
It is first helpful to understand that over the years, cultivators of cannabis have really created 2 subspecies of the plant. They are grown in very different ways and for very different purposes. The first variety is called Hemp. When the plant is grown outside as an agricultural crop, the majority of the crop is “male” with no flowering buds at any stage in its life cycle. Over centuries, growers have selectively created a product that is a fast-growing, tall, fibrous plant that is relatively high in a compound called cannabidiol or CBD and very low in THC content (less than 0.3%). There is no debate about the usefulness of hemp as a textile. It is grown worldwide for various uses, including rope, clothes, textiles, and building materials. It is a multi-billion dollar industry and one of the world’s largest cash crops.
Marijuana, on the other hand, is grown indoors in vastly different conditions that control for light, humidity, and temperature in order to produce a smaller plant that maximizes the amount of psychoactive compounds called tetrahydrocannabinol or THC in relation to the amount of CBD. THC is the compound that gives marijuana users a feeling of euphoria or “high.” Interestingly enough, the levels of CBD in the plant also have the ability to counteract and balance the effects of THC to a degree. Too much THC can easily cause anxiety and paranoia in a person. There are a myriad of medical uses that have been reported over the centuries for the use of THC, and this is what the medical marijuana debate is all about. (Full disclosure: I have personal experience with patients who are utilizing marijuana with great benefit for very serious health conditions and therefore largely encourage more research on its potential use in medicine.)
Hemp Derived CBD
Many people don’t realize that arguably the most powerful phytochemical in the cannabis plant can be derived solely from the hemp plant, thereby completely avoiding the potential issues with the psychoactive nature of marijuana and its potential negative impact on society.
Due to the fact that cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug in the United States, serious medical research on the effect of CBD on humans is in its infancy. Most studies have been done in the laboratory in animal models and cell cultures at this point, which is important to understand. That being said, the information published to date is very encouraging on a wide array of health issues, such as:
- Loss of apatite
- Chronic pain
- Joint inflammation/ arthritis
- Muscle soreness/strains
- Autoimmune diseases
- Immune regulation/control
- Anti-proliferative effects in some cancers
- Age-related macular degeneration
- diabetes-related glaucoma
- Crohn’s disease/ IBD
- Gut repair
- Improved detoxification
- Blood sugar regulation
- lowers hypertension
Too Good To Be True?
Some people wonder how one plant could possibly have a beneficial effect on so many areas of the body. In fact, I’ve spoken to people who discount the potential effects of CBD simply because it sounds too good to be true, and we’ve been trained to be skeptical about things like that. I totally get it. I think that a good deal of skepticism is in order these days, as we’ve all been duped by the “hype” masters of marketing a few too many times.
But in this case, what we’ve learned about CBD so far seems to indicate just how it has these broad-body effects. It has to do with the fact that CBD affects key “receptor sites” in our bodies that have a regulatory effect on key signaling molecules that coordinate entire systems of the body. I’ve tried to explain this a time or two to people, and it’s quite difficult. I recently came across an excellent explanation by Dr. Asher Milgrom, Ph.D and since we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words and a video is worth a million, you can watch the youtube video. It’s 21 minutes, but a topic this important is well worth the time to learn.
(The careful observer of the video might realize that he is promoting a version of CBD that is sold through a direct marketing company. We are not affiliated with this company at all, BUT the products we choose to dispense in the office have comparable delivery systems.)
Is it legal?
Here’s where the waters get really murky. In Utah, since medical marijuana is not legal, possessing a product containing any appreciable amounts of THC violates state law. In 2014, a law was signed into effect that allows patients with intractable epilepsy to get medical permission to have CBD oil with less than .03% THC (equivalent to hemp oil). The 2014 version of the Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp as part of state research programs. Producers began to extract CBD and sell it as a safe and effective health supplement. This created some legal problems as some states DEA insisted that CBD was still illegal. The distributors of CBD have existed in this grey area for several years now, but most states are aware of these issues and are working through the legislative process to make the landscape easier to navigate. In fact, just this year, the Senate passed a bipartisan supported amendment of the Farm Bill that would officially remove hemp from the DEA’s list of controlled substances. The House then passed a version of that bill with some slight modifications that required it to be taken up in committee prior to being sent to the President for signing.
Continued Scientific Exploration and Personal Clinical Experience
Most experts agree that some amazing healing properties are found inside this plant and that we are scratching the surface of its potential. Because the marijuana plant is currently a Schedule 1 drug, it is very difficult for American companies and universities to study it. Some people that I’ve talked to say that reclassifying marijuana may take a decade or so, but others I’ve spoken to say that it is “already a done deal” and is only a year away. Who really knows?
The most viable solution to access CBD from hemp appears to be through the new Farm Bill, and it appears that it will be signed in the very near future. That should make hemp and its derivatives fully legal in all 50 states. Of course, accessing marijuana-derived CBD with THC is another story with a much higher hill to climb.
What I do know personally through direct clinical experience is that hemp-derived CBD is a powerful, natural tool in my arsenal to help patients. It is by far the most powerful agent I’ve seen to lower anxiety and improve sleep. It has dramatically improved seizures, lowered post-infectious brain inflammation causing debilitating muscle spasms and contractions, and been the best topical anti-inflammatory for tendonitis and bursitis I’ve seen in 20 years of musculoskeletal health care.
I’m hopeful that we can continue exploring the benefits of this fascinating herb and that it can replace dozens and dozens of synthetic pharmaceutical drugs as a first-line therapy.