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The Potential Miracle Element in Cannabis That Changed Sanjay Gupta's Mind About the Power of Pot

Martin Lee, author of "Smoke Signals," discusses the healing powers of the cannabis plant.
 
 
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As marijuana reforms sweep the nation, and states from coast to coast scramble to join Colorado and Washington in legalization of the notorious herb, it is clear the U.S. has reached a pivotal point in the marijuana dispute. Martin A. Lee's new book  Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational and Scientific provides an unprecedented history of the controversial plant.

Smoke Signals is an unmatched illustration of the science behind the cannabis plant. Perhaps the most stunning revelations in Lee's book are those focused on the little-known "Cinderella molecule" in the cannabis plant, called cannabidiol (CBD). CBD gives marijuana some of most wide-ranging healing properties in medicinal history, but doesn't get you stoned like THC.

Lee is also the director of  Project CBD. His wealth of knowledge on the underappreciated molecule is vital to understanding our past and future relationship with the marijuana plant. Lee spoke with AlterNet about the miraculous healing potentials of CBD. 

Don Hazen: CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta’s about-face on medical marijuana became a national news story. What is the significance of Gupta’s endorsement of therapeutic cannabis after years of toeing the government line and dismissing marijuana’s healing properties?

Martin A. Lee: Like most physicians, Gupta never learned about cannabis in medical school. Until recently, he knew nothing about how cannabis worked on a molecular level, its mechanism of action in the brain and body, its side effects and safety profile. He had not been following the remarkable discoveries of scientists associated with the International Cannabinoid Research Society, which was formed after the first cannabinoid receptor was identified in the brain in 1989. Instead, Dr. Gupta took his cues from federal agencies, which maintain that marijuana is a dangerous drug with no medical value.

But Dr. Gupta changed his mind when he actually delved into the science of cannabis therapeutics and saw firsthand how seriously ill Americans were benefiting from marijuana. He was intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that he was mistaken. He said he had been misled by the federal government. And he apologized for his own role as a physician and media celebrity in misleading the public.

The CNN documentary Weed was not without flaws. Several drug war myths were recycled and given credence. But overall it was a powerful, eye-opening report, a resounding thumbs-up for medical marijuana. Most significantly, Gupta’s show was the first national news program to highlight the remarkable therapeutic potential of cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana.

DH: In Smoke Signals you describe CBD as the "Cinderella molecule.” Why is CBD important?

MAL: CBD is one of over 100 “cannabinoid” compounds that are unique to the marijuana plant. The most well known cannabinoid is THC. It’s what makes people feel stoned when they smoke marijuana. THC has well-documented medical benefits. So does CBD, but CBD doesn’t make people feel stoned. Moreover, CBD can actually counter or minimize the psychoactive effects of THC, depending on how much of each compound is present in a given strain or product.

CBD taps into how we function biologically on a very deep level. It has proven neuroprotective effects and its anti-cancer properties are being studied at academic research centers in the United States and elsewhere. Scientists have shown that CBD can shrink malignant tumors, change gene expression, normalize arrhythmic heartbeat, and stimulate the growth of new brain cells in adult mammals. Scientific and clinical investigations underscore CBD’s potential as a treatment for a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, schizophrenia, PTSD, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and antibiotic-resistant infections. That’s why I call CBD the Cinderella molecule—so many maladies are responsive to CBD that it’s almost like a fairytale. But the science is very real.