A few decades ago, we knew very little about the chemistry of cannabis. Most of what I encountered in college was low quality, compressed, greenish-grey material with lots of stems and seeds – commonly known as “Mexican brick weed.” It was likely to make you feel passive, immobile, and hungry – a much more benign combination than the various effects you might experience from too much beer or Mad Dog 20/20.
Of the many compounds in the plant, we only heard much about two back then – THC and CBD. At the time, our elementary knowledge could be summed up in a few words: THC is the mood-altering component (what gets you “high”) and CBD is the part that makes you relaxed. We didn’t want to be relaxed, though, so we interpreted this to mean that “good marijuana is high in THC and low in CBD” and bad marijuana is the other way around.
In the years that followed, Mexican brick weed became increasingly scarce as the American cannabis industry bred more potent plants that contained an ever-higher percentage of THC. But for many of us who had dabbled in it in our early 20’s, an intensely altered state was no longer something we desired.
As legal restrictions loosened up, specialists in botanical medicine were eventually able to gain a better understanding of cannabis chemistry (we still have a ways to go) and breeders began to develop strains that produced a more specific effect – calming, stimulating, and so on.
Furthermore, although the market for Mexican brick weed seemed to be long gone, it turned out that there was a high demand, especially among older consumers, for a product with its effects – essentially a breed with a high level of CBD and a very low quantity of THC. Something a connoisseur would have once called low quality cannabis is now sought after. And an increasing number of my patients tell me they use it – or simply CBD alone – not to “get high” but to de-stress, decrease pain, sleep better, manage neurological disorders, and more.
A patient with very stubborn idiopathic nerve pain (meaning, the cause was unknown) came in one day reporting that the pain had been remarkably better since our last visit. “I hate to break it to you, Doc,” he said with a smirk on his face, “but it wasn’t the acupuncture.” He went on to tell me that he had been using a topical CBD lotion, and that it was more effective than anything else he had tried.
Another patient, who had for years experienced an anxious tightness in her chest in social situations, told me that a small amount of oral CBD resolved it without causing any other perceptible effect. She said, “I don’t feel different in any other way. I do my work, I can think clearly. I just don’t have that anxious feeling.”
And several patients who were tired of using pharmaceuticals to treat their insomnia have told me of their success with a variety of CBD products. They generally find them just as effective as sleeping pills, but with the advantage of being natural. Also, unlike the prescription drugs, they don’t worry that the CBD could put them into such a deep slumber that they might not hear a smoke detector or other emergency.
Now, if there’s one thing that rubs me the wrong way, it’s a “cure-all” – and that’s because there aren’t any! There’s no substance out there that’s good for everything or everyone, and I’d be remiss as a healthcare practitioner if I implied otherwise. CBD isn’t going to fix your life, and some people don’t experience any noticeable benefit from it. But I can say that, for many, it’s a useful natural helper with an excellent safety profile. And I’m eager to see what more we learn about this and other remarkable plants.
Dr. Peter Borten
P.S. Just as we were publishing this article, I discovered a new study in the journal Nature on the use of CBD in the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has a dismal 5-year survival rate of just 5%. But in this study, mice with pancreatic cancer who were given CBD plus chemotherapy survived THREE TIMES longer than those who were treated with only chemotherapy. While we don’t yet know how this will translate to treatments for humans, it’s one more way in which this astounding plant is a promising tool for healing.