Take a trip to a recreational marijuana store or spend some time reading reviews of pot, and you'll find there's a strain for everything from being more social to relieving anxiety to sparking creativity. Marijuana enthusiasts will tell you that's because there are 85 different cannabinoids that interact with receptors in the central nervous system in different ways.
The best known and understood is THC, which produces marijuana's psychoactive effects. But in recent years, CBD, a cannabinoid that lacks the psychoactive effects of its famous relative, is gaining new attention in both the medical and recreational markets for its relaxing effects and health benefits.
For years, CBD products, including topicals, capsules, patches and strains rich in the cannabinoid, were available only on the medical market. As the recreational market has grown and is poised to merge with the medical market as a result of last year's legislative overhaul of the state's pot laws, more CBD products are available to consumers who don't have a medical card.
"I tell most people, you want to think of it as a super supplement for your body," says Katie Beaman, manager at Northside Alternative Wellness Center, a Spokane-based medical marijuana dispensary. "The same way someone would take vitamin C, CBD is something we would recommend anyone take as supplement."
Jerry Whiting — founder of LeBlanc CNE, a Seattle-based company that specializes in high-CBD strains of marijuana — says that CBD can be used for ailments that are "not worthy of a doctor's visit and a prescription, but could use a little help" such as regulating metabolism or digestion. He also recommends taking it regularly with some THC to get its full benefits.
But researchers, such as Raul Gonzalez, a psychologist at Florida International University, says that while there is anecdotal information from patients and preliminary research on CBD's effects on animals, large-scale, replicable studies proving the medical benefits of CBD for humans just aren't there.
"The marketing has gotten way ahead of the research when it comes to pot," he says.
Possible benefits of CBD were first discovered by Brazilian and Israeli researchers in a 1980 study finding that the chemical shows promise in treating patients suffering from epileptic seizures. In the U.S., marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning the federal government recognizes it as having a potential for abuse and no proven medical benefits. This classification has produced red tape that has made studying marijuana, including CBD, more difficult.
Carrie Cuttler, clinical assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, is getting around the difficulties in researching pot by conducting a survey asking participants about their use of marijuana to treat physical ailments and its CBD content. She plans to publish the results in an academic journal that she hopes will inform further studies, but the gap in research remains.
"Dispensaries will suggest strains for this, for that, but there's not scientific data," she says.
Some states have concluded that there is enough evidence of the cannabinoid's medical benefits to begin allowing CBD oil to be used on patients suffering from severe epilepsy. Even states like Alabama, Utah and Florida, which otherwise don't sanction medical marijuana, allow for the use of CBD oil. There are stories of families that have travelled to places like Colorado seeking a "miracle" treatment for their epileptic children after no other medication seemed to work.
Dr. Jahan Marcu, chief scientist for of the pro-medical marijuana group Americans for Safe Access, says that despite the lack of clinical trials, he feels there is strong evidence that CBD can act a neuroprotectant, reducing pain and muscle spasms associated with neurodegenerative diseases. CBD could affect the chemistry of other medications, he notes.
Although the Food and Drug Administration sent letters last year to makers of CBD oil instructing them to stop making medical claims about their products, which the letter referred to as an "unapproved new drug," mainstream interest in using the cannabinoid as medicine is growing. In 2014, Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon sent a letter to the NFL encouraging it to support research using CBD to treat head trauma of football players. In 2014, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in a CNN special on marijuana, touted the medical benefits of CBD. And Dr. Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told a U.S. Senate panel that although there was a need for more research, CBD did show promise.
"There is significant preliminary research supporting the potential therapeutic value of CBD, and while it is not yet sufficient to support drug approval, it highlights the need for rigorous clinical research in this area," she said. "There are barriers that should be addressed to facilitate more research in this area." ♦