by Paul Armentano
September 14, 2012
They don't even get you high,
so why are these natural,
non-toxic substances illegal?
Because they're derived from
Imagine there existed a natural,
non-toxic substance that halted diabetes, fought cancer, and reduced
psychotic tendencies in patients with schizophrenia and other
You don’t have to imagine; such a
substance is already here. It’s called cannabidiol (CBD). The only
problem with it is that it’s illegal.
Cannabidiol is one of dozens of unique, organic compounds in the
cannabis plant known as cannabinoids, many of which possess
documented, and in some cases, prolific therapeutic properties.
Other cannabinoids include,
(THC), the primary psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, consuming
these plant compounds will not get you high.
Nonetheless, under federal law, each and
every one of these cannabinoids is defined as schedule I illicit
substances because they naturally occur in the marijuana plant.
That’s right. In the eyes of the US government, these
non-psychotropic cannabinoids are as dangerous to consume as heroin
and they possess absolutely no therapeutic utility. In the eyes of
many scientists, however, these cannabinoids may offer a safe and
effective way to combat some of the world’s most severe and
hard-to-treat medical conditions.
Here’s a closer look at some of these
promising, yet illegal, plant compounds.
After THC, CBD is by far the most studied plant cannabinoid.
First identified in 1940 (though its
specific chemical structure was not identified until 1963), many
researchers now describe CBD as quite possibly the most single
important cannabinoid in the marijuana plant. That is because CBD is
the cannabinoid that arguably possesses the greatest therapeutic
A key word search on the search engine PubMed Central, the U.S.
government repository for peer-reviewed scientific research, reveals
over 1,000 papers pertaining to CBD - with scientists’ interest in
the plant compound increasing exponentially in recent years. It’s
easy to understand why.
A cursory review of the literature
indicates that CBD holds the potential to treat dozens of serious
and life-threatening conditions.
“Studies have suggested a wide range
of possible therapeutic effects of cannabidiol on several
conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease,
cerebral ischemia, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, other
inflammatory diseases, nausea and cancer.”
That was the
conclusion of researcher Antonio Zuardi, writing about CBD in
the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry in 2008.
A 2009 literature
published by a team of Italian and Israeli investigators indicates
that the substance likely holds even broader clinical potential.
They acknowledged that CBD possesses
properties such as,
Martin Lee, cofounder and director of
the non-profit group
- which identifies and promotes CBD-rich strains of cannabis -
Cannabidiol is “the Cinderella
molecule,” writes Lee in his new book,
Smoke Signals: A Social
History of Marijuana - Medical, Recreational, and Scientific
“[It’s] the little substance that
could. [It’s] nontoxic, nonpsychoactive, and multicapable.”
It’s also exceptionally safe for human
According to a just published clinical
the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design, the oral administration
of 600 mg of CBD in 16 subjects was associated with no acute
behavioral and physiological effects, such as increased heart rate
“In healthy volunteers… CBD has
proven to be safe and well tolerated,” authors affirmed.
A 2011 literature
published in Current Drug Safety similarly concluded that CBD
administration, even in doses of up to 1,450 milligrams per day, is
non-toxic, well tolerated, and safe for human consumption.
Yet despite calls from various researchers to allow for clinical
trials to assess the use of CBD in the treatment of various
...a review of the
website - the online
registry for federally supported federal trials worldwide -
identifies only four US-based clinical assessments of CBD.
Two of these are safety studies; the
other two are evaluations of CBD’s potential to mitigate cravings
for heroin and opiates.
pharmaceutically produced, patented oromucosal spray containing
extracts of THC and CBD, is also undergoing testing in North America
for use as a cancer pain reliever under the name Nabiximols.
The drug is already available by
prescription in Canada, the United Kingdom, and throughout much of
Europe for the treatment of various indications, including multiple
Presently, however, options for US patients wishing to utilize CBD
are extremely limited.
Most domestically grown strains of
cannabis contain relatively little
many smaller-sized cannabis dispensaries do not consistently carry
such boutique varieties. A handful of prominent cannabis
dispensaries, mostly in California and Colorado, do carry CBD-rich
strains of cannabis or CBD-infused products.
However, in recent months, several of
these providers, such as Harborside Health Center in Oakland and El
Camino Wellness in Sacramento, have been targeted for closure by the
federal Justice Department, which continues to deny evidence of
CBD’s extensive safety and efficacy.
Cannabinol (CBN) is
largely a product of THC degradation.
It is typically available
in cannabis in minute quantities and it binds relatively weakly
with the body’s endogenous cannabinoid receptors. Scientists
have an exceptionally long history with CBN, having first
isolated the compound in 1896.
Yet, a keyword search on PubMed
reveals fewer than 500 published papers in the scientific
literature specific to cannabinol. Of these, several document
the compound’s therapeutic potential - including its ability to
induce sleep, ease pain and spasticity, delay ALS (Lou Gehrig’s
Disease) symptoms, increase appetite, and halt the spread of
certain drug resistant pathogens, like MRSA (aka ‘the
In a 2008 study, CBN was one of a handful of
cannabinoids found to be “exceptional”
in its ability to reduce the spread MRSA, a skin bacteria that
is resistant to standard antibiotic treatment and is responsible
for nearly 20,000 hospital-stay related deaths annually in the
Cannabichromene (CBC) was
first discovered in 1966. It is typically found in significant
quantities in freshly harvested, dry cannabis.
To date, the
compound has not been subject to rigorous study; fewer than 75
published papers available on PubMed make specific reference to
According to a 2009
of cannabichromine and other non-psychotropic cannabinoids,
exerts anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and modest analgesic
CBC has also been shown to promote anti-cancer
activity in malignant cell lines and to possess bone-stimulating
More recently, a 2011 preclinical
trial reported that CBC influences nerve endings above the
spine to modify sensations of pain.
“[This] compound might
represent [a] useful therapeutic agent with multiple mechanisms
of action,” the study concluded.
Similar to CBC,
cannabigerol (CBG) also has been subject to relatively few
scientific trials since its discovery in 1964.
To date, there
exist only limited number of papers available referencing the
substance - a keyword search on PubMed yields fewer than 55
citations - which has been documented to possess anti-cancer,
anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-bacterial properties.
According to a 2011
review published in the British Journal of Pharmacology,
“[A] whole plant extract of a CBG-chemotype… would seem to
offer an excellent, safe new antiseptic agent” for the treatment
of multi-drug resistant bacteria.
A more recent
published this year in the journal Pharmacology & Therapeutics
further acknowledges that CBG and similar non-psychotropic
cannabinoids “act at a wide range of pharmacological targets”
and could potentially be utilized in the treatment of a wide
range of central nervous system disorders, including epilepsy.
Discovered in 1970,
tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is most typically identified in
Pakistani hashish and cannabis strains of southern African
Depending on the dose, THCV may either antagonize some
of the therapeutic effects of THC (e.g., at low doses THCV may
repress appetite) or promote them. (Higher doses of THCV
exerting beneficial effects on bone formation and fracture
healing in preclinical models, for example.)
Unlike, CBD, CBN,
CBC, CBG, high doses of THCV may also be mildly psychoactive
(but far less so than THC).
To date, fewer than 30 papers available on PubMed specifically
Over half of these were published within the
past three years. Some of these more recent studies highlight tetrahydrocannabivarin’s anti-epileptic and anticonvulsant
properties, as well as its ability to mitigate inflammation and
pain - in particular, difficult-to-treat
Like CBD, THCV is on the radar of British biotech GW
Pharmaceuticals (makers of Sativex). According to its website,
the company has expressed interest in the potential use of
tetrahydrocannabivarin in the treatment of obesity, diabetes and
other related metabolic disorders.
Though the compound has been
subject to Phase I clinical
testing, a keyword search on
clinicaltrials.gov yields no specific references to any
ongoing studies at this time.