Guzmán leads me around his cramped lab—centrifuges, microscopes, beakers, petri dishes, a postdoc researcher in a white smock extracting tissue from a mouse corpse pinned under bright lights. It’s your typical bioresearch lab, except that everything is devoted to the effects of cannabis on the body and brain. The lab focuses not just on cancer but also on neurodegenerative diseases and on how cannabinoids affect early brain development. On this last topic the Guzmán group’s research is unequivocal: Mice born of mothers regularly given high doses of THC during pregnancy show pronounced problems. They’re uncoordinated, have difficulty with social interactions, and have a low anxiety threshold—they’re often paralyzed with fear at stimuli, such as a cat puppet placed near their cage, that don’t upset other juvenile mice.
In most countries it is forbidden to create oil from cannabis, because cannabis is a controlled substance (i.e. illegal drug). However, CBD, unlike THC, is not a controlled drug, and regulations are minimal by comparison in many places around the world. This has led to the appearance of numerous CBD-rich extracts on the international market. Most of these extracts contain low levels of CBD and high levels of CBD-acid, the natural constituent of the fresh cannabis plant before it is heated.
A geneticist, Kane studies cannabis from a unique perspective—he probes its DNA. He’s an affable, outdoorsy guy with a bright face and eyes that wander and dart inquisitively when he talks. He has studied chocolate and for many years the sunflower, eventually mapping its genome, a sequence of more than three and a half billion nucleotides. Now he’s moved on to marijuana. Though its sequence is much shorter, roughly 800 million nucleotides, he considers it a far more intriguing plant.
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The cost of treatment varies: Depending on the dispensary and the dosage, it can range from around $100 a month to more than $1,000. Despite the cost, which is not covered by insurance, CBD medicines are drawing great interest for children with severe, intractable epilepsy. California and Colorado, which were among the first states to legalize medical marijuana, have become hot spots for such patients. Before other states legalized medicinal CBD use, some families moved to these states so they could have access to the compound.
It's the Wild West out there. Without any federal regulatory body checking labels, consumers have very little way of knowing what they're buying when they purchase CBD oil. Bonn-Miller co-authored a study that found that 26 percent of CBD products on the market contained less CBD than their label claimed. So the amount you need for an effective dose could vary drastically, not just from product to product, but from bottle to bottle of the same product.
At Denver’s LivWell, which has an enormous indoor growing operation, workers remove marijuana leaves before the buds are trimmed, keeping the plants destined for medical use separate from those for recreational use. After Colorado legalized marijuana, thousands of young people from all over the world flocked to the state to participate in the multimillion-dollar business phenomenon that’s been called the Green Rush.
When Meagan’s in-laws suggested they look into medical marijuana, she recoiled. “This is a federally illegal drug we are talking about,” she recalls thinking. But she did her own research. A good deal of anecdotal evidence shows that high-CBD strains of cannabis can have a strong antiseizure effect. The medical literature, though scant, goes back surprisingly far. In 1843 a British doctor named William O’Shaughnessy published an article detailing how cannabis oil had arrested an infant’s relentless convulsions.
Right now, there’s a good chance that you don’t really know what you’re getting from any source. Testing and labeling rules vary by state, but many states that allow legal cannabis also require some kind of testing to verify that the THC and CBD levels listed on the label are accurate. However, this testing is controversial, and results can vary widely between labs, Jikomes said. A study published in March found measurable variations in test results, with some labs consistently reporting higher or lower levels of cannabinoids than others. There are no guarantees that the label accurately reflects what’s in the product. For a 2015 study published in JAMA, researchers tested 75 products purchased in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle and found that only 17 percent were accurately labeled. More than half of the products contained significantly lower levels of cannabinoids than the label promised, and some of them contained only negligible amounts of the compounds. “We need to come up with ways to confidently verify the composition of cannabis products and make this information available to consumers,” Jikomes said.
Although most states restrict the use of CBD products to certain medical conditions, manufacturers of CBD claim their products are derived from industrial hemp, and therefore legal for anyone to use. A number of these manufacturers ship CBD products to all 50 states, which the federal government has so far not intervened in. CBD is also openly sold in head shops, health food stores, chiropractor clinics, optometrist offices, doctors offices and pharmacies in some states where such sales have not been explicitly legalized.
What makes CBD so appealing is that it’s non-intoxicating, so it won’t get you high, though it “is technically psychoactive, because it can influence things like anxiety,” Jikomes said. Although much of the marketing blitz around CBD centers on the fact that you can take it without getting stoned, there isn’t much research looking at the effects of CBD when used in isolation, with a couple of exceptions. One is the use of CBD to treat seizures: CBD is the active ingredient in the only cannabis product that the Food and Drug Administration has signed off on — a drug called Epidiolex, which is approved for treating two rare forms of epilepsy. Animal models and a few human studies suggest that CBD can help with anxiety, but those are the only conditions with much research on CBD in isolation.
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In 2014, for the first time, the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham conducted a study suggesting that cannabinoids affect blood vessels by causing them to relax and widen. By relaxing blood vessels, cannabis presents a natural way to lower blood pressure and improve circulation. Because this is the first human study evaluating the efficacy of cannabis in treating conditions of the heart, there is still more research to be done to prove that this is a safe method of treatment.
Because it takes a significantly larger amount of hemp stalks to produce hemp oil, there is an increased risk of contamination of toxins contained within the plant. This is a result of hemp's strong bio-accumulator properties, where it pulls toxins from the soil it grows in. Many hemp oils are also known to lack the full spectrum of terpenes and other cannabinoids that are believed to act synergistically with the CBD, meaning that consumers receive less of a benefit. That being said, there are some brands that test rigorously to make sure that the CBD content, as well as the terpenes and other cannabinoids, are up to par. It's a good sign if they offer to provide a certificate of analysis, which will tell you what kind of compounds are in the hemp oil and in what concentrations
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