Buzz Kill

by Alec Torres
A new marijuana compound should benefit medicine and the legalization movement.

There’s a new kind of marijuana on the market, with a unique twist: It doesn’t get you high.

Little known to the general public, yet with potentially large implications for medicine and science, cannabidiol, known as CBD, is a compound in cannabis with a wide range of positive effects. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (commonly referred to as THC), the most well-known compound in cannabis, it doesn’t make you stoned and even counters the psychoactive effects most commonly associated with marijuana.

Isolated for its current purposes in 2009, CBD is shaking up the world of medical marijuana, providing new hope for those suffering from chronic illnesses and changing the nature of the marijuana debate in the United States.

News of CBD comes as an increasing number of states are legalizing traditional, high-THC marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Colorado and Washington are at the forefront, having legalized marijuana for recreational use almost a year ago. States from Alaska to California to Maine and in between have legalized medical marijuana; in all, 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana in some form.

Martin Lee, director of Project CBD, a nonprofit educational service that promotes and publicizes research on the medical utility of CBD and cannabis in general, is a key leader in the effort to publicize CBD, and just completed a tour of the Northeast to discuss and lecture on the cannabinoid.

Because of the varying legality of marijuana and its outright prohibition on the federal level, “one of the unfortunate realities” is that research into CBD is limited, Lee explains. Doctors don’t normally conduct research on federally prohibited drugs, so the studies are “mainly preclinical,” “mostly animal studies or research with human cell lines.”

Despite the research limitations, Lee says CBD has shown “significant potential” to aid the ill. “Preclinically and anecdotally from medical-marijuana patients,” he says, “CBD is shown to help with cardiovascular issues, liver conditions, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and even has an anti-tumoral effect for cancer patients. Most significantly, CBD is shown to have no side effects.”

That doesn’t mean THC is out of the picture, though. “The whole plant, including THC, is more potent and has more therapeutic effects than a single molecule” such as CBD, Lee says. “So entrepreneurs are drawing from the whole plant, creating a range of different ratios of the different molecules.” Scientists and entrepreneurs are working on different compounds and plants with varying levels of THC and CBD; because CBD counters the psychoactive effects of THC, the different ratios induce different levels of psychoactivity in the brain.

The upshot? Scientists can now produce strains of marijuana that have all the benefits of the full plant without any of the psychological effects. So even with THC added, allowing for the full natural effect of the cannabis plant, medical users need not experience the “high” of traditional marijuana.

There are both organic and synthetic marijuana products, and the synthetic versions — extracted from oils in the cannabis plant and mixed by chemists in a variety of ratios — are ingested via an under-the-tongue spray, so medical-marijuana users can find relief without having to light up.

So if medical marijuana provides documented health benefits, without the controversial high, what would keep it from social and legal acceptance?

Cultural inertia, mostly, Lee says. “The big change resulting in a lot more people being involved in marijuana will come through medical use probably because of CBD and the new non-psychoactive products,” he predicts. “What it means is people who tried it in college once or twice, either didn’t like it or didn’t have any experience with it at all, will hear about these amazing medicinal attributes of CBD and be drawn into the medical-marijuana world.”

Yet in the end, CBD may not be necessary for legalization. “There actually is a cultural consensus moving toward legalization [in general],” Lee argues. “I heard one poll saying 80 percent of Republicans in Texas are pro-choice with respect to the option of medical marijuana. That might be high, but I think there is clearly a pro-medical-marijuana trend in the United States.”

When I ask Lee if he worries about social upheaval or negative reactions to marijuana legalization, he tells me to look at California as a case. In Lee’s eyes, California’s lax marijuana law regulation hasn’t led to any great social harm. There have been no deaths, no increase in traffic accidents, and no adverse health effects, he says. “When you stand back and . . . dispassionately observe the situation . . . there doesn’t seem to be any pattern of harm that’s resulted. . . . Realistic, sober assessments would conclude it’s a relatively successful experiment.”

Lee doesn’t think there’s good reason for marijuana laws in the first place: “Prohibition is an illogical policy. It’s contradictory, it’s based on lies, and it’s an insult to one’s intelligence.” Lee cites the ubiquity of marijuana use as proof that the people don’t accept the federal government’s usual propaganda on marijuana. In fact, its prohibition can even make other illegal, truly dangerous drugs seem more innocuous, he thinks.

But Lee sees a growing pro-marijuana coalition that crosses party lines. “When you look at the coalition, you have libertarians that are basically begging to be taxed and regulated, you’ve got liberals who have all of a sudden found a passion for states’ rights on this issue. . . . You have ex-cops and ex-cons, marijuana growers, and more — all part of this very broad-based, vibrant, successful coalition,” Lee says. With this degree of optimism, it seems like the legalization movement may not even need the social acceptance CBD could help cultivate. But this peculiar compound, with its capacity to relieve without psychoactive side effects, may persuade more Americans to accept marijuana as a medical boon rather than a stigmatized pastime.

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.