A Hidden Origin Story of the CBD Craze

Long before CBD became a fashion elixir, found in juices and moisturizers, ice cream and treats for dogs; before corporate networks like Walgreens and Sephora decided to sell it; and long before Kim Kardashian West launched a CBD themed baby shower, a cluttered team of activists, doctors, writers and marijuana growers met on a winter night in 2011. They were sitting in a circle in a house on the hills, just a few hours north of San Francisco – discuss the therapeutic potential of CBD and how to get people to take you seriously.

Several studies in rodents and cell cultures suggested that CBD, a non-intoxicating compound in the cannabis plant, more formally known as cannabidiol, could protect the nervous system, modulate blood flow, slow the growth of cancer cells and relieve seizures, pain, anxiety and inflammation.


"We were talking about & # 39; what can we do with this? & # 39;", recalls Samantha Miller, who hosted the event in her two-story home, between the redwoods and a stream below. An obstinate biochemist, she has been growing marijuana since she was 14 and has just left a six-figure job to start her own cannabis testing laboratory..

After two years of tracking plants with marijuana with a high CBD content and building momentum, the group began to devise ways to convince more farmers to grow strains with CBD – which was largely created with American marijuana, since it doesn't let you Crazy. In addition to convincing marijuana dispensaries to widely transport the CBD, they wanted to educate the public about its promising benefits.

As the group of ten gathered, a vaporized marijuana balloon was passed in one direction and a bong in the other.


"There was a strong feeling that this would really be something if, when people used these strains, they had some kind of experience like mice in the labs," said Martin Lee, a writer who was just finishing a book on the social history of marijuana for Simon & Schuster.

Next to him was Stacey Kerr, a gray-haired doctor who served as treasurer for the Society of Cannabis Clinics, as well as Wade Laughter, a soft-spoken man with glasses who started growing marijuana for glaucoma in the mid-90s. Laughter and Lawrence Ringo, an old school hippie producer, were some of the first Americans to intentionally grow plants higher in CBD than in THC – the compound that gets him high. Both have pledged to keep their strains available to other producers at cheap prices. (Ringo said he would sell his seeds for only $ 5).


Finally, there was Fred Gardner, a writer who had recruited almost all of these people for the CBD cause. A former Harvard-educated anti-war activist, now 78, Gardner has been writing about CBD since the late 1990s for publications like Synapse, the U.C. San Francisco weekly. For years, he was determined to connect CBD's nascent research on symposia abroad with the medical marijuana movement in California. And with that group, it finally seemed to be coming together.

Miller spent the months after this meeting leading hundreds of CBD seminars for farmers; Dr. Kerr initiated informal patient surveys to track how CBD made people feel; and when Lee finished his book he used to travel with Laughter and Ringo's high CBD plants and seeds, spreading the gospel in cannabis stores in the west.

"I knew this was a very special moment," said Kerr, talking about the night at Miller's house. "That it was the beginning of something big, and we were there to see it."

At the time of the Samantha Miller summit in 2011, THC was the only chemical "face" of the plant. Cannabis containing significant amounts of CBD was still rare. Police attacks and federal lawsuits from medical marijuana companies were still common. And since CBD doesn't get you high, it was easy to lose; hardly anyone outside the pharmaceutical companies and the academy had heard of it.


In the nine years since that night in the forest, one of the group's biggest goals has been clearly achieved: people know CBD.


Jennifer Aniston loves beauty products made with her. N.F.L. star Rob Gronkowski sells. Mike Tyson offers a cannabidiol infused water called DWiiNK. On Instagram, #cbd is four times more common than #resist. Last year, the investment bank Cowen estimated that the CBD sector in the US will be worth $ 16 billion by 2025. And sales of CBD in e-commerce have grown this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the 2020 CBD scenario is nothing like what activists and scientists wanted. This is because the federal government's insistence that marijuana has no legitimate use as a medicine has created two huge problems: the proliferation of fake CBD products and the senseless separation of CBD and THC.

Clinical studies It has shown this CBD is most effective when combined with at least some THC, even if it is not sufficient to cause a discharge. However, the United States considers THC marijuana to be an Appendix 1 drug – which puts it in the same category as heroin, indicating a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. This makes research much more difficult and causes sick people in many states to be treated as criminals.

Cannabis high in CBD but extremely low in THC was legalized in late 2018. But finding an easy and affordable test that can distinguish cannabis with THC from cannabis without THC was prohibitively difficult for farmers and criminal labs equals. So, federal agencies were slow to regulate the booming industry – leading to a deluge of dyes, smoothies and lotions that reliable tests have shown to contain no CBD.

In the absence of supervision, the effort to get more patients access to the cannabis drug – and the CBD in good faith – was co-opted by an effort to earn as much money as possible in the next big wellness fad. "At one point, she had a life of her own," Miller told me.

Now, the CBD industry promises a miracle drug, but it often sells a placebo: cannabidiol products with zero cannabidiol inside. As a result, the compound is often caricatured as snake oil, a scam, even when promising research on the full potential of CBD is beginning to increase.

The complex's reputation is a microcosm of what it means to be in America now: something that some of us consider a scam and others praise as the solution to everything. But CBD's troubled journey from the international underground to cultural omnipresence proves that, as always, the truth is somewhere in between.

As marijuana use increased in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Nixon administration criminalized drugs to defame what an advisor described like “the left and anti-war blacks”, the more scientific side of the government started funding some basic research on cannabis. A man named Carlton Turner helped establish the government's Marijuana Research Project at the University of Mississippi. After that, he became President Ronald Reagan's anti-drug czar, helping to expand the war on drugs.

But all the while, Turner was in contact with a Brazilian scientist named Elisaldo Carlini who had done small-scale human studies showing that CBD reduced seizures: "All the initial work on CBD was at Carlini in Brazil," said Turner last summer. "We stayed in communication for many years."

For decades, Dr. Carlini's research has not been replicated, in part because few people had access to the complex: both marijuana stored in the country's only government-sanctioned marijuana laboratory at the University of Mississippi and illegal marijuana being smoked throughout the world. country had only trace CBD content. (Turner went on to test various types of marijuana sent by a legendary marijuana producer, "High Times" writer named Mel Frank. Unsuccessful: nothing contained too much CBD.)

In those years, California counterculture emissaries frequently traveled the world looking for unique types of marijuana. The most influential of these collectors was a man named David Watson. In the early 1970s, Watson sold his goods and started hitchhiking from Morocco to India, making friends with local marijuana growers along the way.

Watson finally settled in Amsterdam to examine his thousands of types of marijuana at his own Dutch company, HortaPharm BV. He brought a friend, an American botanist named Robert Connell Clarke to help. When Watson and Clarke learned of the CBD research that Dr. Carlini had done in Brazil, the couple identified and then produced varieties of CBD. This led to a discovery.

"Attenuate the high," Clarke told me over breakfast in Los Angeles. "It came strictly from evidence of anecdotal drug addicts."

Meanwhile, after multiple sclerosis patients in England became stronger about how cannabis helped their symptoms, the country allowed a small pharmaceutical company led by a British doctor named Dr. Geoffrey Guy develop cannabis medicines derived from plants; GW Pharmaceuticals licensed varieties created from Watson and Clarke's cannabis collection and started work.

"In a few years, they found that a 1: 1 combination of a high THC chemovar and a high CBD chemovar had the greatest latitude of effects and prevention of side effects," said Dr. Ethan Russo, who worked with GW Products from 1998 to 2014.

As Watson and Clarke found, having CBD in the mix reduced the most uncomfortable effects of THC: sedation, drunkenness, a faster heart rate. And while some discrepancies responded well only to CBD, GW data showed that, to relieve pain and inflammation, aid in sleep and relieve seizures and spasms, most patients benefited more from an equal mix of CBD and THC – a medicine that the company called Sativex. But the research was not enough. Although the drug has been approved for use in about 30 countries, the F.D.A. has not yet approved Sativex in the United States.

Mr. Gardner, the writer whose defense of the CBD eventually inspired the 2011 summit at Miller's house, he followed these developments closely. If only there were some way, he thought, for California outlaw farmers to determine whether their plants had CBD, marijuana stores could offer a product similar to Sativex. Unfortunately, Gardner wrote in 2005, this would require access to expensive test equipment.

Between three years later, one of Oakland's pioneering marijuana entrepreneurs, a pigtail braided medical marijuana entrepreneur named Steve DeAngelo. DeAngelo, who contacted Gardner about the urgent need to institute better testing, agreed to help fund a marijuana analysis laboratory, Steep Hill, which started operations in 2008.

Gardner appeared frequently, talking and checking whether Steep Hill's founders had discovered the elusive complex. And finally, in February 2009, a double peak appeared on a test chart, indicating the presence of CBD.

"I remember the moment," said David Lampach, one of the founders and co-founders of the laboratory. "Seeing the double peak and realizing it was real, and running it five times to make sure."

In the summer of 2009, the laboratory identified five strains with significant CBD and THC. Gardner was enthusiastic and started referring to his efforts as "Project CBD" alongside other supporters, including Mr. Lee, the writer. “Immediately the thought was:‘ What will the government say about this? How can they be against something that is not intoxicating? & # 39; & # 39; said Lee.

In June 2010, the host of the 2011 summit, biochemist Miller, opened her own laboratory, Pure Analytics. A few months later, she called Ringo, the hippie producer, to let him know that a marijuana sample he sent was a CBD-rich variety – up to 11%.

"He's in the speaker room, and that big shout goes up," she said, recalling her team's emotion.

In the fall of 2010, a CBD Project A website was created where anyone could search for studies organized by disease or condition. Lee took charge of managing it and began to attract an audience. A few months later, CBD's network of lawyers met at Miller's California home to coordinate their evangelism. And in mid-2011, the word cannabidiol permeated the population that would become its most potent promotional mechanism: chronic patients, people with cancer, with ALS, with serious disorders that were not responding to prescription drugs.

As stories of CBD's power spread, demand increased and prices went up. Sick people used to trust the generosity of producers like Mr. Ringo, his son Dakota told me.

"I would go up there and see people dying of cancer with him, and he would use them with oil he made at home," said young Ringo. Mike Hyde, whose son suffered from brain cancer, spent months driving through Colorado and the West Coast looking for CBD in late 2011, before connecting with Ringo at a restaurant.

"I never met this guy before, and he literally brought us probably $ 30,000 worth of oil for this CBD that nobody could get," explained Hyde. "For free."

CBD's major launch into the mainstream came when the world saw evidence of what Dr. Carlini had discovered in Brazil in the 1970s: the compound's ability to suppress seizures. Unlike a reduction in pain, this was something that any politician or film crew could easily see. It was not a stupid farce.

First, in December 2011, an epileptic child used CBD on Discovery Channel's "Weed Wars", a program with Steep Hill's lab co-founder, Mr. DeAngelo. The following year, the parents of an epileptic boy in San Francisco purchased CBD from a cannabis store. Then, looking for a better quality product, they contacted GW Pharmaceuticals – the British company that had licensed the cannabis collection from 20th century cannabis collectors, Watson and Clarke, who conducted the research in the 1990s. defense of Gardner's CBD. O developed company a 98% CBD drug for the boy and others like him.

Perhaps the most critical turning point for CBD was in August 2013, when a CNN special hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta profiled a 6-year-old girl in Colorado, Charlotte Figi, who used CBD to treat your epilepsy, as well as the muscular brothers who grew your CBD, the Stanleys. Hundreds of families – witnessing the power of CBD enhanced by the values ​​of cable news production – have moved to Colorado to gain access to the Stanleys' CBD oil, called Charlotte & # 39; s Web. The Stanley told me that the list of the wait reached 15,000 names. And because of public demand, the F.D.A. accelerated clinical trials of the 98% CBD drug from GW Pharmaceuticals, Epidiolex.

Suddenly, everyone wanted CBD, even if no one understood. In the confusion, there was money to be made. Just a few weeks after the exhibition of the CNN documentary, the increased interest of the CDB led the Financial Sector Regulatory Authority issue an alert to the investor on marijuana scams: like the F.D.A. would be then show, many online CBD products contained little or no CBD.

In 2020, CBD is available in three ways: over the counter; in state-licensed marijuana dispensaries; or if you have certain forms of epilepsy, from GW Pharmaceuticals. Most Americans find CBD in the first and most reliable way – say, at a bodega in Brooklyn or at a health food store in Indiana. Recently, a consultant hired to conduct an investigation by a corporate chain told me that the percentage of CBD products sold over-the-counter that contained the label quantity was "in single digit digits".

As if the backstory story of CBD couldn't get any stranger, the path to this excess of false CBD was paved by, among all people, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Regardless of brouhaha on the west coast, tobacco growers in Kentucky were looking for a new crop of cash. In 2011, James Comer won the race for Kentucky's agricultural commissioner, promising to legalize industrial hemp.

"It raised a lot of eyebrows, including at McConnell's office," said Eric Steenstra, a hemp lobbyist. "They saw that the winds were changing."

Together with Representative Jared Polis, now Governor of Colorado, McConnell included a hemp pilot program in the 2014 agricultural law – for "research". In the legislation, hemp was defined as cannabis containing less than 0.3% THC – an arbitrary threshold, not a scientific distinction: nothing in the Farm Bill, jurisprudence or the Controlled Substances Act seemed to say anything about the CBD. Thus, entrepreneurs interpreted this research-oriented pilot program as the de facto legalization of cannabidiol.

The Drug Enforcement Administration disagreed, but failed to stop the tidal wave of CBD production. In 2018, more than 60% of the Kentucky hemp crop was grown for CBD. So long after the country was already inundated with questionable and legitimate CBD products, McConnell inserted the language into the 2018 Farm Bill, explicitly creating hemp. legally federal.

Many of the Californians who conspired at Miller's home in 2011 watched, frustrated, as the CBD industry flourished, divorced the THC and the fake CBD deceived consumers.

On his deathbed in 2014, Ringo insisted with friends and family that the Stanley use their seeds to develop their famous Charlotte & # 39; s web. Joel Stanley told me that genetics for Charlotte's Web was a "blend of wild hemp. with an industry genetics ". Critics of the Stanley brothers in the cannabis industry were irritated by the importance and pressure for patents. His company has been valued at more than half a billion dollars.

Miller, who still runs a marijuana testing lab, told me that in the years since the 2011 summit, she was disappointed when people she thought had sincere intentions to spread the CBD ended up wanting to get richer. Gardner feels the same way.

There was a slight increase in clinical research around the compound's relationship with anxiety, schizophrenia and opioid use disorder. In September, the National Institutes of Health okay $ 3 million in small donations for studies of cannabidiol and other non-THC cannabis compounds. However, the rush enabled by the government to profit has seriously and unduly undermined CBD's medical reputation.

Even Dr. Turner, Reagan's drug czar, said there is far more evidence of the benefits of Sativex, the CBD medium, THC medium than the unregulated CBD online.

"There are not enough clinical trials and there never will be," said Clarke, the cannabis seed collector. "There is no financial interest in whoever does this." Big Pharma is more invested in drugs that they can control, that only they can patent.

Still, some of the states with legal cannabis have implemented robust testing standards, and the CBD in good faith can be found in many marijuana dispensaries, alone and in a variety of THC proportions. Miller's laboratory and other responsible actors must ensure that products that reach legal marijuana store shelves contain exactly what they claim to contain. But, without strict federal supervision, few of CBD's businesses voluntarily choose to test the accuracy of their product labels.

When I asked Dr. Russo, who oversaw much of GW Pharmaceuticals' research, how he feels about all of this, he sighed. "You do something and other people run with it, and it becomes something else that you don't recognize," he said. "I'm always worried, but what I like to think about is: what is the real potential here?"

Amanda Chicago Lewis (@msamandalewis) is an investigative reporter, focused on drug policy. She wrote for Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, GQ Magazine and other media.

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