The Power and the Problems of Two Cannabis Compounds

You don’t have to get high to get well.

Story Jonah Raskin

Time magazine recently proclaimed, “CBD Is Everywhere,” and then asked, “But Is It Really Safe and Healthy?” The jury is still out on “cannabidiol,” aka “CBD,” though according to the tabloids, Kim Kardashian and her husband, Kanye West, are having a “CBD oil-themed baby shower” for their next child.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved Epidiolex, a derivative of CBD, for treatment of epilepsy and, in response to public pressure, the FDA is holding hearings on the legalization of CBD, which has for decades taken a back seat to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
One form of CBD occurs naturally in the human body and helps regulate internal balance. A second form of CBD, classified as a “phytocannabinoid,” is made by plants and can act as a supplement to the first variety.
CBD calms and modulates, rather than stimulates. That’s what the overwhelming majority of CBD users report. THC, besides giving people a variety of consciousness-altering experiences, has helped patients with some cancers, and with HIV/AIDS, by stimulating appetite and combatting insomnia. (For more information, consult Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutic Potential, edited by two doctors—Franjo Grotenhermen and Ethan Russo—and Americans for Safe Access (
Anyone hoping to hear a unified chorus of voices all singing exactly the same words about cannabis will be sorely disappointed. If you believed the White House and the Drug Enforcement Agency, you would run from cannabis as though it was the plague. If you believed Sonoma County cannabis farmers, dispensary owners, manufacturers and countless consumers, you might try it, either to get high, relax or as medicine.
Sonoma Valley viticulturist and canna-culturist extraordinaire Mike Benziger says, “The cannabis of today bears little resemblance to the pot of the sixties. There’s way more science now than ever before. Over the last 20 years, California growers have developed strains for joint pain, anxiety, sleep, and more.”
Benziger adds, “I will personally drive any skeptic to a dispensary, introduce him or her to a budtender, and ask the budtender to recommend a strain for a particular condition. Take two or three home, try them out and see what works.”
Indeed, hundreds of people who once relied on opioids have tossed them out, embraced cannabis and say they now live healthier lives. Herbals are increasingly in while the legal use of over-the-counter drugs appears to be fading.
Fred Gardner, who edits O’Shaughnessy: The Journal for Cannabis in Clinical Practice, calls marijuana a “dialectical plant with opposite effects.” Scholar Martin Lee calls it “a trickster plant.” The author of Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational and Scientific, Lee is also the co-founder and manager of Project CBD, a Sonoma County-based educational platform that offers in-depth scientific information about CBD.
 The “trickster” aspects of cannabis have led some lawmakers, doctors, and health professionals to regard it with suspicion. No two individuals react to cannabis the same way. Dosage has long been an issue and so have impurities. A 2017 study tested 84 CBD products purchased online and found that 70 percent were mislabeled, containing either more or less than the claimed amount of CBD. One-fifth had detectable levels of THC. (The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA;
 CBD from dispensaries has far more accurate labeling than most CBD bought online. For verifiable content and strength, it’s best to buy at a neighborhood dispensary or from a reputable company.
For decades, Californians have cultivated cannabis with high levels of THC and hyped-up names like “Train Wreck.” But as aging baby boomers have developed physical infirmities, many have turned away from getting “wrecked” and turned toward CBD to alleviate pain, reduce anxiety, depression, and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Since 2010, cannabis and hemp growers have responded to demand and cultivated strains with lots of CBD. Many boomers who use it say they prefer CBD to prescription drugs from a pharmacy. Sebastopol MD Jeffrey Hergenrather has recommended cannabis with high levels of both THC and CBD to tens of thousand of patients. The anecdotal evidence he has gathered, suggests that CBD and THC are effective medicine (
Since abundant anecdotal evidence supports claims that CBD offers health benefits and isn’t psychoactive, some cannabis activists have refocused their energies on just legalizing it without fighting for THC approval.
“CBD can be seen as a stalking horse for the legalization of marijuana,” says Dale Gieringer, the director of the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Hemp and CBD have been legal in foreign countries for many years. Not so THC. I think it will take another four to five years.”
In Smoke Signals, Martin Lee writes that, “Cannabinoid scientists were loath to speak in terms of a miracle drug, but cannabinoid came pretty close.” The Project CBD website, which he launched in 2009 ( reports, “We examined hundreds of peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals,” and concluded that CBD “may be therapeutic for many conditions” including asthma, ALS, glaucoma, diabetes, and more.
Backing those conclusions with hard scientific evidence in the U.S. has been hard, since all marijuana, whether it has CBD or THC, is illegal by federal law, a legacy of the pot prohibition that began in 1937. Because cannabis is still classified as Schedule 1 drug (along with heroin), clinical studies have for the most part been deemed banned. But in other countries, including Italy, a team of researchers led by Tiziana Bisogno showed that CBD triggers “serotonin receptors” and confers an “antidepressant effect.” Bisogno’s findings were reported in volume 134 (2001) of the British Journal of Pharmacology.
CBD products run the gamut from foot creams, to tinctures, teas, salves, drops, soaps, oils, facial masks.  
At the Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Dr. Sean McAllister showed that CBD reduced the invasion, colonization and conquest of breast cancer cells ( McAllister also noted that CBD worked effectively when it was used in conjunction with THC.
The Israeli chemist and Hebrew University professor Raphael Mechoulam—who located and described the THC compound in 1964— calls the collaboration between THC, CBD, and other cannabis compounds “The encourage effect.”
Not everyone is as convinced as Lee and Mechoulam about CBD’s medicinal benefits. In a recent article titled “How Legal Is CBD?”—available online at—the experts at UC Berkeley say, “There isn’t yet enough evidence to recommend CBD for any medical use aside from the epileptic conditions it’s approved for.”
Still, the Berkeley experts do not tell readers not to use it. Rather, they urge users to purchase CBD products in states where it’s legal and avoid arrest. Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is now classified as an agricultural commodity in all 50 states and should be legal for use in CBD production. But in a circuitous bureaucratic twist, the California Department of Public Health has ruled that until the FDA rules that industrial hemp can be added to food products, or the state if California hemp is safe to use for human and animal consumption, “CBD products are not an approved food, food ingredient, food additive, or dietary supplement.”
Cannabis producers have not taken extreme umbrage because, they insist, marijuana produces superior CBD and without industrial hemp there’s less competition.
Meanwhile, the World Anti-Doping Agency has removed CBD from its list of banned substances, and many athletes now use it instead of ibuprofen for pain relief. Also, the World Health Organization recently announced that CBD is safe and that no users become dependent on it.
At Flying Goat Coffee in Healdsburg, not far from his home, Lee insists that the UC Berkeley information is “total nonsense,” that it “merely echoes what the federal government claims and ignores nearly all the scientific evidence and anecdotal data from all over the world.”
Still, even at the federal level there’s movement. Last year, U.S. Attorney General William Barr called for a unified federal policy on cannabis.
Meanwhile, Martin Lee explains that “artisanal CBD,” the kind grown in soil, is better than “pharmaceutical CBD,” the kind manufactured in a lab. Savvy Sonoma Valley growers like Erich Pearson and Joey Ereñeta have shown that the best place to cultivate artisanal cannabis, with both CBD and THC, isn’t in a greenhouse or under artificial light, but outdoors and in direct sunlight, preferably using the biodynamic methods that Mike Benziger uses at his Glentucky Family Farm in Glen Ellen. Benziger’s medicinal cannabis, which is rich in CBD, is sold at Soulful Dispensary in Sebastopol and elsewhere.
It’s not clear who is actually monitoring the sourcing of CBD oil sold in California or used in the state’s exploding consumables industry. New products are bubbling up all over.
Mountjoy Sparkling, a Sonoma County company, mass produces a popular bubbly water in five different flavors, infused with 10 mg of organic CBD, available in a 16-ounce plastic bottle. Proprietor Alex Mountjoy says, “I drink it as a cocktail in the evening.”
According to an Associated Press report, CBD products sold in the U.S. last year were worth an estimated $2 billion, and could reach $16 billion by 2025. Martha Stewart is developing a CBD product line, and CVS is selling CBD products in 800 stores.
A recent headline in the LA Times summed up the conundrum: “CBD-infused products are being sold everywhere in California—but are they legal?”
Martin Lee says, “CBD is sort of illegal and sort of legal.” Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar observes, “Enforcing restraints has been nonexistent. CBD is already out of the stable.”   
Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War.


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