Behind the CBD Gold Rush


In 2013, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta announced his famous epiphany regarding medical marijuana, apologizing for having publicly doubted its legitimacy for years. Central to his change of heart was the story of Charlotte Figi, whose 300 weekly epileptic seizures were brought down to two or three a month thanks to a strain of marijuana (later named “Charlotte’s Web” in her honor), that was high in cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound, and low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the part responsible for getting a person high. The effect Dr. Gupta’s endorsement had was nearly instantaneous. He legitimized medical marijuana in the eyes of countless skeptics, and CBD was seen as the secret to harnessing the medicinal properties of the plant without the legal, social or moral baggage that comes with the stuff that Snoop Dogg smokes.

CBD continues to excite the imaginations of scientists, patients, neo-prohibitionists and get-rich-quick schemers alike. The market is flooded with CBD-only elixirs and many who point to them as a rational compromise to legalization don’t seem to know or care where they come from, what’s in them, or whether they are actually the best medicine for the ailments they purport to target. This gold-rush mentality has left the door open for the political and financial exploitation of this “miracle molecule” that seems to mean all things to all people. Politicians who are afraid of legalizing marijuana, but who don’t want to appear to their constituents as withholding medicine from those in need, are sponsoring CBD-only bills, and companies that want to avoid the legal issues related to marijuana—still an illegal, schedule 1 narcotic in the eyes of the Federal government—are jumping on the CBD bandwagon, despite the fact that CBD is still, technically, as illegal as plain, old-fashioned marijuana. (Due to the supportive political climate behind medical marijuana, the Feds have not been targeting CBD-only medicine, but until the laws change, it is within their jurisdiction to do so.)

There is quite a bit of confusion regarding CBD, even in the circles that support it. Project CBD, founded in 2010 by two journalists, Martin A. Lee and Fred Gardner, is an organization dedicated to helping people make sense of this misunderstood molecule, and to promoting the science behind medical marijuana.

“Project CBD was formed after the first strains of high-CBD cannabis were rediscovered in northern California—varieties such as Harlequin, Omrita Rx, Sour Tsunami, and Jamaican Lion, for example.” Martin A. Lee explains. “For a long time, it was thought they didn’t exist anymore.  Most of the medical strains, and the remedies crafted from them, are THC-dominant still.  And it was just by happenstance really, almost serendipitously, that these other strains were rediscovered. But once they were, then the question was whether what we learned about how CBD was affecting a rat’s brain, would be applicable to a human brain. We knew, if this was the case, that it would be really something special. And, indeed, it has played out that way quite incredibly.

“So now we report to scientists what doctors and patients are learning from using CBD in a clinical context. And while our focus has always been educational, we also respond to the situation on the ground, what’s necessary, what’s needed. When Dr. Sanjay Gupta started talking about CBD, everything exploded and there was a real shortage of supplies. That became an issue, and we turned our attention to helping to catalyze or facilitate more of a supply. It’s not what Project CBD does directly. Project CBD does not grow cannabis or make products. We are strictly an educational organization. But we respond to inquiries from producers, growers, etc. and try to help bring about a situation where anyone who wants CBD-rich remedies will be able to access them.”

The current drive for CBD-only medication and legislation calls to mind a similarly fact-challenged push 30 years ago to capitalize on marijuana’s medical potential without contributing to the societal decay that would ensue if patients were permitted to imbibe a substance that might, during their convalescence, enhance their enjoyment of a live Grateful Dead tape. Dronabinol was the brainchild of that effort—synthetic THC patented and produced by the Belgian firm Solvay Pharmaceuticals, and sold under the brand name Marinol. Marketed as an anti-nausea pill for cancer patients, Marinol provided a miserable high with little therapeutic value and was covered by most major insurance companies—a triple play for big pharma, but a flaming bag of dog turds on the doorsteps of the terminally ill. Much like these proposed CBD-only medications, Marinol lacked the panoply of other cannabinoids, terpenoids and flavonoids that, when working in concert, address the widest range of ailments in the most effective way. There is some therapeutic value to both substances, but if your house was on fire, would you reach for a water pistol or a hose?

“Everyday we get contacted by people asking, ‘Where can I get CBD? I just want CBD, the medical part, not the recreational part,’” Lee says, “as if THC is just recreational and not medical.  And we have to disabuse people of this line of thought, because a CBD-dominant remedy like Charlotte’s Web can, in some cases, produce near miraculous results, but we know quite well, from the families that are involved with Charlotte’s Web, that only about 10 or 15 percent get that result. Most of the families are finding they need to have more THC, or more THC-A (THC acid), which is the unheated form of THC and which, as it turns out, is not psychoactive. So it’s clear that CBD and THC are involved in a synergistic relationship, they potentiate each other’s effect. Some people have a hard time tolerating THC. In that case, they might start on a product like Charlotte’s Web that’s much more dominant in CBD than THC, and then they could slowly increase the amount of THC to a comfortable level. And there’s hard science behind this, there have been studies that show, for example, that THC has very powerful anti-tumoral properties, animal studies show that THC will shrink tumors, but when combined with CBD, THC has a more potent anti-tumoral effect. So it’s very clear that it’s not just the individual compounds in the plant that are important, but the plant itself.”

As whole-plant remedies high in CBD content remain illegal in non-medical states, the production and marketing of CBD-only medicines has spawned a poorly regulated cottage industry populated with dubious companies hawking sometimes unhealthy products to medical marijuana patients. Project CBD waded into this territory recently when it commissioned a six-month investigation into Medical Marijuana Inc. (MJNA) and its related offshoots, including HempMeds and Kannaway. The resultant article, “Hemp Oil Hucksters” by Aaron Miguel Cantú, contends that “Discrepancies between MJNA business results and its press strategy have caused industry analysts to raise questions about a ‘pump and dump’ stock scheme and potential financial fraud,” and that “Kannaway, another MJNA subsidiary, is engaging in business practices that may qualify it as a pyramid scheme based on guidelines published by the Federal Trade Commission, Bureau of Consumer Protection, and Division of Consumer and Business Education.” Most alarming, however, are lab results that showed significant levels of toxic solvents in samples of Real Scientific Hemp Oil (RSHO) Gold, a HempMeds product that allegedly caused patients, including children, to grow violently ill.

The problem, according to Lee, may stem from the fact that these elixirs were supposedly concentrated from the seeds and stalks of imported industrial hemp, in an attempt to create a “legal” product that could be marketed throughout the country, and not from cannabis flowers grown from reputable sources.

“Hemp is a phytoremedial plant,” he says. “It’s a bio-accumulative, it will suck up contaminants from the soil. Now, you need a lot of plant matter if you’re dealing with industrial hemp to get a little bit of CBD. The more plant matter you have to use and extract from, the greater the risk of the contaminants being brought into that process. And we found some terrible stuff in some of these products, which allegedly made some people very sick, including kids. These people sent us the samples to test. It was tough to figure out what was in there. We wanted to test for heavy metals and solvents and things that most labs aren’t testing for within the cannabis community. We actually found a DEA registered lab to look at some of this stuff, and the information was very disturbing.

“I should add, that it is possible for a company making this CBD-rich oil, extracted from industrial hemp, to do so in a way that is clean, but it takes a lot. You’re starting off on the wrong foot. Within industrial hemp, CBD is the predominant cannabinoid as opposed to THC. There are certain cultivars that I’m told may be as high as 4% CBD by dry weight.  But in the cannabis world, you can get as high as 20% CBD by dry weight in strains such as ACDC. So if someone is growing strictly to extract CBD, certainly the cannabis strains that are CBD dominant are a much a better source.”

Project CBD also alleges that HempMeds employed a bait-and-switch advertising method in regards to awards that a subsidiary company named Phytosphere Systems won at the 2013 High Times Cannabis Cups in Seattle and Amsterdam for a highly refined CBD oil called “CBD simple.” “Each High Times award was followed by self-congratulatory PR from HempMeds, incorrectly implying that the prize-winning CBD concentrate is the same as the RSHO products sold over the Internet,” the article states. When asked for comment by Project CBD, High Times senior editor Bobby Black stated, “Our High CBD awards are given to whatever flower, concentrate, and edible score the highest in CBD content based on the results we get from the labs who test our entries. Unlike the majority of our awards, these are given out based solely on the lab results without any subjective input from judges.”

Project CBD is aware of the spin potential that negative portrayals of medical marijuana companies could provide to prohibitionists. A press release accompanying their investigation of Medical Marijuana Inc, quotes sections of the article and emphasizes, “The findings detailed in ‘Hemp Oil Hustlers’ should not be construed ‘as justification to attack the medical marijuana community or impose ever-more capricious restrictions on patients and providers.’ Project CBD calls for implementing sensible regulations for therapeutic cannabis products in accordance with standards that apply to other medicinal herbs, as developed by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia. ‘All cannabis oil products should be lab tested for contaminants and labeled accurately for content,’ the report concludes. ‘If tainted products are discovered, they should be recalled without delay.’”

The success of initiatives that legalized recreational use in states like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, and the sudden arrival of a rapidly expanding, above-ground, cannabis industry with a billion-dollar profit potential, has surprised even those who have long fought for this result. It’s as if, during a performance of Samuel Beckett’s existential drama Waiting For Godot, the long-mythologized and never-seen character of Godot suddenly materialized in the middle of the third act. Those who have been studying and campaigning for this plant since before the arrival of the current zeitgeist now have the responsibility to help separate myth from fact, false prophet from messiah, lest the moment be squandered.

“Today, almost no one takes seriously the idea that marijuana has no medical value,” Lee insists. “Saying that cannabis has no medical value is like saying that the moon is made of green cheese. But there’s still a segment of journalists who believe that the green cheese faction is worth going back to again and again as reliable sources of information, and so myths are continually promoted. Our feeling at Project CBD is that humanity has had a relationship with this plant since before recorded history. That relationship was sundered in 1937, and we now have to recreate that relationship and relearn what this plant’s all about, and how to optimize the use of it if you’re looking at it for medicinal purposes, or for whatever purpose you wish to use it. It’s a very friendly plant, very forgiving, but there’s a lot that’s still to be learned about it.”

Via High Times


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