Two plants strains relatively rich in cannabidiol (CBD) have been identified by an analytic test lab recently established to serve the medical cannabis industry in California. That’s two major stories in one sentence. Let’s take it from the bottom…
In December a lab in the East Bay started testing samples of cannabis for pathogenic mold and the presence of three cannabinoids –THC, CBD and CBN (cannabinol). THC is the main psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant. CBD is a cannabinoid with intriguing medical potential that gets bred out of cannabis when the breeder’s goal is high THC content (as it has been in California for generations). CBN is a breakdown product of THC, an indicator of time in storage.
The lab has been testing about 10 samples a day provided by Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, whose proprietor, Steve DeAngelo, helped plan and underwrite the venture. Results from the lab are posted on labels affixed to the strains in Harborside’s display cases. Thus prospective buyers are informed that the sparkly nuggets of Raspberry Kush they are savoring in a Petri dish are free of dangerous aspergillus and contain 14.3% THC by weight. (Percent CBD and CBN almost always round off to zero. That’s about to change.)
DeAngelo’s primary goal is to impose safety standards industry-wide. “We’re giving the analytic laboratory project a beta rollout,” he says, “to find the problems and eliminate them before seriously soliciting participation from other dispensaries. Then we’ll see who’s serious about the medical paradigm.”
Running the lab are two 30-something entrepreneurs, D.L. and A.D, who spent about a year setting it up and refining their procedures under the tutelage of a sympathetic university-connected chemist. D.L. operates the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer. A.L. is liaison to the dispensaries. They are planning to add tests for pesticides and certain terpenes –aromatic compounds that contribute to the effects of cannabis.
The advent of a test lab will change the medical cannabis industry in significant ways. For some growers and distributors thriving under the status quo, the documented presence of toxins in their products will force adjustments. The lab has found levels of mold and e coli that bear witness to unsanitary production methods. Deangelo says, “It can’t be the whole family and friends sitting around with all the dogs in the living room. We’re putting out the message: ‘Clean up your trim areas, clean up your storage areas, do not have cannabis curing in an area that’s exposed to animals. Set up a clean room and put on different clothes when you go in. Wear gloves. Wash your hands. In other words, remember that your product is medicine and treat it as medicine.'”
Harborside’s savvy purchasing agent, Rick Pfrommer, notes that input from the lab has already led to growers cleaning up their acts. “Most of the people who have had mold in their cannabis are the people who didn’t have filters on their air intake. They may have had beautiful medicine, but they were pulling in whatever from the air. Now they’ve got filters.”
When the lab begins testing for pesticides, indoor growers who have been using chemicals to kill mites and other pests will have to find organic alternatives or else peddle their wares to dispensaries that don’t adopt safety standards. Expect some to argue that a little residual Avid on their cannabis buds isn’t going to hurt anyone.
Eureka! (No, Laytonville!)
CBD predominates over THC in cannabis that grows wild (ditchweed) and plants grown for fiber (hemp). When plants are bred for psychoactivity CBD is replaced by THC because the same gene codes for one or the other cannabinoid. According to research done in Europe and Israel, CBD has anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsant, anti-psychotic, anti-oxidant, and neuroprotective properties. It also has a direct inhibitory effect on certain cancer cells.
Biologists at California Pacific Medical Center, Sean McAllister and Pierre Desprez, have determined that CBD inhibits breast cancer metastasis by suppressing a gene called Id-1. This winter they started working with mouse models of breast cancer, and if all goes well, they will be conducting clinical trial at CPMC in less than two years.
A British company, GW Pharmaceuticals, has developed a high-CBD strain that it mixes with a high-THC strain to make Sativex, a plant extract formulated for spraying under the tongue that has been approved in Canada and elsewhere to treat neuropathic pain. CBD evidently bolsters the pain-killing effects of THC while moderating its psychoactivity. In various studies, patients with severe pain have reported getting significantly more relief from Sativex, the mixture, than from GW’s high-THC extract.
With a few notable exceptions the California cannabis samples tested to date have contained only trace amounts of CBD. The first notable exception exception occurred in late February when D.L. saw a spike on a computer-generated graph indicating a high level of CBD in one of the samples provided by Harborside. After some additional testing he confirmed that this strain, produced indoors in San Francisco, contained 4.2% CBD (and 8.9% THC) by weight.
DeAngelo promptly made arrangements with the grower to rev up production. Buds and clones from the strain of interest should be available at Harborside within months. “It would be immoral to try to hoard the genetic material,” says Deangelo. As this story goes off to CounterPunch March 12, a second high-CBD strain has been identified, grown outdoors in Mendocino County. It is a little more than five percent CBD by weight.
Thus the medical marijuana movement/industry is entering a new stage. Growers will develop strains with higher CBD to THC ratios. Pro-cannabis doctors, who have long awaited high-CBD strains, are already planning rudimentary clinical trials to determine whether and in what ways high-CBD cannabis is beneficial.
Because CBD counters the anxiety induced by THC, a high-CBD strain might prove palatable to many people who dislike the way marijuana makes them feel. High-CBD strains might also enable patients who need megadoses to ingest them while remaining functional. According to Jeffrey Hergenrather, MD, “Patients with certain cancers, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease, seizure disorders… they all need to maintain a higher blood level of cannabinoids than is convenient with our high-THC strains. For them, development of a high-CBD strain could be a life or death matter.”
Whatever the outcome of clinical trials involving CBD, the effort alone -the attempt to produce and evaluate less psychoactive strains of marijuans- will refute the image of stoners paying lip-service to medical use that has tarnished the industry. And if and when the effectiveness of high-CBD cannabis in treating, say, rheumatoid arthritis, can be established, a wave of older Californians will be asking their doctors if cannabis is right for them.
FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the journal of cannabis in clinical practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org