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

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.

CBD has been turning heads among medical scientists for several years, and now word is getting out to the general public. Dr. Gupta’s nationally televised report focused on the astonishing transformation of Charlotte Figge, a five-year-old epileptic with Dravet’s syndrome who had 300 tonic-clonic seizures a day until she ingested a CBD-dominant cannabis tincture. Then her seizures ceased. She has been nearly seizure-free since her parents began giving her a CBD-rich remedy. Whole plant CBD-rich cannabis saved Charlotte’s life. Many other families with children suffering from intractable epilepsy are reporting dramatic results with CBD.

DH: How has CBD been received within the medical marijuana industry, which, after all, has undeniable stoner roots and caters largely to a THC-oriented clientel?

MAL: I first heard about cannabidiol while writing Smoke Signals and covering the cannabis science beat as a journalist for O’Shaughnessy’s. At the time there were no CBD-rich remedies available for medical patients, even in states that had legalized cannabis for therapeutic use. That’s because CBD had largely been bred out of black-market marijuana by horticulturists who sought to create THC-dominant strains that caused a more pronounced high. Cannabis breeders assumed that marijuana smokers first and foremost wanted a stronger buzz.

The big breakthough came in late 2009 when Oakland's Steep Hill Laboratory found a few CBD-rich strains while testing cannabis samples for the Harborside Health Center. Soon several other analytical labs in medical marijuana states were measuring THC levels and finding the odd CBD-rich strain. But the medical marijuana community as a whole was slow to pick up on CBD. Initially, most dispensary owners were reluctant to stock CBD-rich strains given that their customers were typically seeking THC-dominant products.

The general public, including most medical marijuana patients, didn’t know much about CBD. So in 2010, I cofounded Project CBD, a medical science information service that educates health professionals and the general public about CBD in particular and cannabis therapeutics in general.

DH: Is it easy to get CBD?

MAL: Today, nearly four years after the serendipitous rediscovery of whole plant CBD by a few Northern California growers, CBD-rich remedies are available in many forms—herb, edibles, ointments, tinctures, extracts, and capsules. In some states where medical marijuana is legal, patients can obtain dose-specific CBD-rich oil concentrates with varying ratios of cannabidiol and THC. This is good news, especially for those who don’t like the mild, swimmy-headed feeling that regular pot smokers find enjoyable. Marijuana makes some people anxious and dysphoric rather than mellow and euphoric. Certain CBD-rich strains are not psychoactive at all—it’s pot that doesn’t get you high! The reduced or non-existent psychoactivity of CBD-rich cannabis may make it an appealing option for folks who otherwise would never consider patronizing a medical marijuana dispensary with a Bob Marley poster on the wall.

I believe that CBD is poised to play a major role in the burgeoning medical marijuana industry as the United States edges toward legalizing cannabis for adult use. Increasingly, dispensaries and product-makers are embracing CBD as part of a proactive marketing strategy that caters to non-stoner constituencies in an effort to attract new clientel. Most people who want to smoke marijuana are already doing so, despite the fact that it’s illegal under federal law. A large percentage of those seeking CBD-rich remedies will be newcomers to the medical marijuana community.

DH: What do prohibitionists say about CBD?

MAL: The drug war establishment steadfastly maintains that cannabis is a dangerous drug with no medical value. That’s tantamount to saying the moon is made of green cheese. With public sentiment strongly pro-choice regarding medicinal cannabis, drug warriors are scrambling for new ways to justify marijuana prohibition, a policy that’s built on a mountain of lies. Diehard prohibitionists like Kevin Sabet, President Obama’s former drug policy advisor, are trying to spin the news about CBD to further stigmatize high-THC cannabis, casting the high causer, THC, as the bad recreational cannabinoid, while pegging CBD as the good medical cannabinoid. Project CBD categorically rejects this dichotomy in defense of whole plant cannabis therapeutics.

The science is on our side. Scientific studies indicate that CBD and THC work best in combination and potentiate each other’s therapeutic effects. There are numerous compounds in cannabis, each with specific medicinal attributes, which combine synergistically to create a holistic “entourage effect,” according to leading scientists in the field, so that the therapeutic impact of the whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sabet fixates on isolated cannabinoids. He tactically concedes that pure CBD and single-molecule THC may have therapeutic value, yet he claims preposterously that the plant itself is not medicinal. Sabet heads an astroturf organization called Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). He’s an inveterate anti-marijuana bigot and a drug war careerist who is addicted to stigmatizing the plant and those who use it.

Sabet maintains that anyone who might benefit from CBD must wait until Big Pharma figures out how to monetize marijuana’s components. If Sabet and his flat-earth allies had their way, Charlotte Figge would be dead by now.

DH: It’s been more than 75 years since the Marijuana Tax Act effectively made cannabis illegal under federal law. Why has marijuana prohibition lasted so long?

MAL: Marijuana’s illegal status has been a useful tool for political elites. In the 1930s, when Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, realized his entire department was on the chopping block because of Depression-era budget cuts, he launched the Reefer Madness campaign to convince Congress and the American people that a terrible menace threatened the country, one that required a well-funded antinarcotics program. A shameless racist, Anslinger demonized marijuana to preserve and expand his bureaucratic fiefdom.

President Richard Nixon drew from a similar Machiavellian playbook in the early 1970s when he declared war on illicit drugs. For Nixon, the anti-marijuana crusade was more than just a formula for padding arrest statistics and appearing tough on crime. It was also a way of targeting youth protest, antiwar sentiment, ethnic discontent, and other expressions of cultural ferment—underscoring once again that pot prohibition had little to do with the actual effects of the herb and everything to do with who was using it.

The drug war that Nixon set in motion would escalate and metastasize under Reagan and his Oval Office successors. Official rhetoric focused on crime and safety, but the subtext was always about race and dissent. Marijuana prohibition is as an instrument of social control. It will end when it’s no longer politically expedient for demagogues and deadbeat public officials. They’ll have to figure out another way to fill America’s prisons with black and brown youth.

DH: A majority of California voters rejected legalizing cannabis in 2010,  but two years later Washington and Colorado residents voted to legalize cannabis for adult use. What ingredients for success were lacking in California that existed in the other states?

MAL: The 2010 campaign for Proposition 19 in the Golden State emphasized the potential economic benefits of legalization. In some ways it was a less proactive campaign than legalization efforts in Colorado, which directly challenged drug war myths by driving home the message that marijuana is much safer than alcohol. The California ballot measure would have increased penalties for adults who smoked marijuana in the presence of a minor. This sent a mixed message that may have reinforced one of the sacred cows of the drug war—that cannabis poses serious risks to youth. For some voters, it was a choice between boosting the economy or safeguarding public health. The successful outcome of the Colorado vote showed that it’s not necessary to include additional pot-related punishments to sway voters.

Another factor is that the cannabis industry in California has deeper roots than the fledgling industry in Colorado and Washington. The Emerald Triangle in Northern California emerged as America’s cannabis breadbasket in the late 1970s. Marijuana farmers in the Emerald Triangle are skittish at the prospect of legalization. Mom and pop growers, who’ve paid their dues over the years, fear that legalization will threaten their livelihood. They worry that Big Tobacco will try to monopolize the marijuana trade. They wince when they hear of overtures to tobacco companies from single issue-obsessed, DC-based, drug policy reform lobbyists who seem to believe that the ultimate goal is to make marijuana widely available at the cheapest price possible.

DH: What should we expect if and when marijuana is legalized nationally? Do you think it will catalyze an economic revival, as some hope? Are pot-coms destined to be the new dot-coms?

MAL: With cannabis, it’s probably best to expect the unexpected. That said, legalization should be an important priority given the pernicious side effects—or main effects—of marijuana prohibition. Marijuana prohibition is a venal and dishonest policy that has fostered crime, social discord, racial injustice, police corruption, and drug abuse itself, while shredding the Constitution and impeding medical advances. The science strongly suggests that ending cannabis prohibition would be a net positive in terms of public health.

Scientific studies indicate that cannabis consumers, compared to non-users, take less painkillers and Big Pharma meds, drink less alcohol, are less likely to be obese or diabetic, and are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s. In California and other states that have legalized medical marijuana, there have been no fatalities or problematic health patterns attributable to the widespread use of the herb. In all likelihood, that pattern will continue as more states legalize marijuana across the board for adults.

For all the hype about the great green rush, pot-coms are not going to be the next dot-coms. Cannabis has long been a source of nourishment for the underground economy. It doesn’t need a brand name or a chain of storefronts or a stockmarket listing to generate large amounts of cash. But cannabis won’t remedy the massive inequalities that disgrace and sicken the United States. Legalizing marijuana without challenging pervasive economic and social inequality could be a recipe for “repressive tolerance,” as the philosopher Herbert Marcuse would say. Legalization could be a fallback strategy for the 1 percent: Cut poor folks some slack and let ‘em smoke weed while they are getting fleeced.

DH: What about the children? What do you say to those who fear marijuana legalization will adversely impact young people?

MAL: Yes, protecting the children—it’s the last refuge of drug war scoundrels. Recent surveys indicate that high school students in the United States and Canada are more likely to smoke pot than cigarettes. This should be seen as a positive development. With cannabis prohibition seemingly on its last legs, drug war propagandists are ratcheting up scare stories about an epidemic of young marijuana addicts with permanent brain damage and lower IQs.

Unfortunately, Sanjay Gupta promoted federal fables about kids and cannabis, even though earlier in the show he took the DEA to task for misinforming the public. “In fact, nine percent of marijuana users will become dependent,” said Gupta, repeating one of the talking points of the DEA and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, two federal agencies founded during the Nixon era that have long since forfeited any claim to credibility with respect to cannabis.

Marijuana does not cause a person to become an addict any more than food causes a person to become a compulsive eater. The idea that marijuana damages the brains of young smokers, stunts intelligence, and makes people apathetic is a political construct with no scientific basis. Alienation and bleak prospects, not marijuana-smoking, are root causes of apathy.

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