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Fields of Green: A Hemp & CBD Primer
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— January 7, 2020

Fields of Green: A Hemp & CBD Primer

By Anthony Frio
  • Research into CBD/hemp benefits are driving CBD's remarkable sales growth.

Fran, 64, makes the weekly 45-minute drive from her Connecticut home to Theory Wellness, a cannabis dispensary in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a state where marijuana sales are legal.

She smokes marijuana or consumes a chewable or chocolate edible version about four times a week to help cope with the back pain caused by a car accident last May.

But, as she gets older, the retired insurance industry secretary plans to shift her purchases from marijuana to a compound, also said to relieve pain, that she hears more about each day—cannabidiol, or CBD. The appeal of CBD for Fran, who asked that her last name not be used, is that she can help treat her ailing eight-year-old Pomeranian and consume it herself while retaining full control of her senses.

“I like the fact that CBD doesn’t give you a high,” she said recently on a frigid Friday afternoon outside the dispensary, where lines of medical and recreational customers streamed in and out. “I wouldn’t want to get high when I’m older. You can fall.”

Positive CBD Research Leads to Surging Sales

Followers of the CBD phenomenon are hard-pressed to identify another commodity that has surged in popularity as quickly. By the end of 2019, US CBD sales were expected to rack up just over $5 billion, and are forecast to swell to nearly $24 billion by 2023, according to Brightfield Group, a Chicago market research firm.

 CBD oils and tinctures are the most popular products in the category, but the demand and intrigue in cannabidiol has spawned releases of CBD in toothpaste, face masks, dog treats, bitters and dark chocolate. It’s in bath bombs, hair cream and even suppositories, and is available for blending with essential oils for use in vaporizers.

Driving the growth are the benefits that many CBD consumers are gleaning. Research increasingly points to the role of CBD in relieving pain, reducing anxiety and depression, alleviating cancer-related symptoms, and potentially benefitting heart health. More studies are emerging.

In the past half-year alone, research has shown that CBD shows promise during exposure to the industrial metal cadmium, in treating gastric cancer and in reducing levels of chemotherapy.

 In one recent study, cannabidiol was shown to protect some cells after exposure to cadmium, a key component of industrial processes and considered an occupational hazard (International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health). In another study, CBD was shown to have anti-tumor properties, in human gastric cancer (Biomolecules). And researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem used CBD and another agent to activate a protein called TRPV2 to open a canal inside liver cancer cell membranes. They then inserted a low dose of a chemo drug directly into the cancer cells, bypassing healthy ones (Frontiers in Pharmacology).

Key to these successes is the way CBD works with our endocannabinoid system. “Our bodies naturally produce certain cannabinoids that can have beneficial effects. Thus, it seems very promising that as we learn more about cannabinoids from plants, we will find that some of them do have targeted therapeutic effects,” says Brent A. Bauer, MD, director of research at the Mayo Clinic’s Integrative Medicine Program. “Many consumers and patients are reporting beneficial effects on pain, anxiety and sleep.”   

Also clearing the road for the widespread embrace of CBD is an anti-pharma sentiment coinciding with the nation’s relentless opioid epidemic—an estimated 10.3 million Americans aged 12 and older misused opioids in 2018, including 9.9 million prescription pain reliever abusers and 808,000 heroin users, according to an August 2019 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Those who want to see those numbers drop are happy to add CBD to an arsenal of what they say are healthy, non-addictive alternative approaches for managing pain. “It might be holistic medicine for some, ice packs for others and CBD for others,” says Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MS, a holistic nurse and consultant on CBD-related issues for healthcare practitioners. “People who have chronic pain need help. They’re not necessarily drug seekers, but they become drug seekers because they have so much pain and all they’re being offered is an opioid.”

Also advancing the popularity of CBD is the passage of the Farm Bill of 2018, or Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which clarifies that hemp and hemp products are legal. 

Two Cannabis Strains, Major Differences

Cannabis plants are divided into two main strains—Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica. Hemp, a form of sativa, contains larger amounts of CBD.

Many are familiar with the image of a single cannabis leaf, but sativa and indica are different. Sativa plants have long, thin leaves, are taller—they reach up to 20 feet—and loosely branched. In contrast, indica plants have broader leaves, are shorter and densely branched.

CBD is in some ways riding the coattails of the market impact states are making by legalizing pot.

As of December, 11 states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana for recreational use among adults over 21, while 33 states have legalized medical marijuana.

“Now that marijuana is legal and people are using it, they discovered the anti-inflammatory effects and they’re telling their friends,” Wilson says. “They’re feeling better. Their joints don’t hurt as much. Their old injuries don’t bother them as much. And stores are reinforcing the idea that it is an effective medicine, and I believe it is.”

But the cannabidiol market is no longer dominated by marijuana users, according to the research firm Brightfield Group, testiment to the rapid mainstream adoption of CBD. “I get that,” says Wilson, the holistic nurse, of that finding. “People with rheumatoid arthritis don’t want an altered consciousness.”

Pain Relief Without the High

Dave Rodman, founder and managing partner of The Rodman Group, a Denver law firm with a large segment of its practice in cannabis, says the strong popularity of CBD makes sense.

 “CBD being non-psychotropic and non-intoxicating has huge appeal, so you’re getting adoption at a much faster rate than…marijuana,” Rodman says. “The people who are diving into adoption of CBD are soccer moms and seniors. Soccer moms want it for aches and pains, and seniors—you tell them you can take fewer pills and they’re all over it.”

Moreover, 65% of CBD users say consumers should be able to buy CBD as unrestrictedly as they can buy vitamins and supplements, without cannabidiol first being shown to be effective by the FDA, according to research from Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chen School of Public Health.

Mounting cannabidiol research adds to the pressure on the FDA from Congress and the industry to move through the regulatory process quickly. The research firm Brightfield Group expects the surge of interest in CBD will likely trim the FDA’s typical two-year timeline for rolling out standards and regulations.                                                      

With more than 100 known cannabinoids, lawyer Rodman expects demand for CBD and related products to swell even more. “CBD isn’t the end of the equation,” he says. “Sure, you’ll see some attempt to throw cold water on the hot market, but people are making multimillion-dollar investments in this. I don’t see this slowing down.”

How the Endocannabinoid System Works

Remember those encyclopedia entries about the human anatomy that typically featured colorful transparencies of the body’s various systems, overlaid one on top of the other? Flipping each page would reveal, in turn, the muscular system, respiratory, circulatory and so on, until you reached the last transparency, the one with the skeletal system.

 Even a remotely close depiction of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) would be nearly impossible, however. That’s because the analog format of a printed page could not accurately convey the ubiquity of the molecules that make up the system in the body—or their fluid nature and cyclical generation, disappearance and regeneration. Endocannabinoids do not operate within a fixed system of vessels, such as the veins and arteries that make up the circulatory system and deliver blood.

 The ECS is made up of endocannabinoids, kinds of fatty molecules, also called endogenous cannabinoids, and cannabinoid receptors, found on the surface of cells throughout the body. The endocannabinoids—two key endocannabinoids, anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglyerol (2-AG), have been identified—and cannabinoid receptors act as a medical tag team of sorts that jumps into action, responding to changes in the body and making needed repairs. The receptors are attuned to the body’s functions, and the endocannabinoids respond to these emergency calls from the receptors.

 Those repairs put the body back in homeostasis—a condition in which body temperature, glucose levels and other biological functions are at stable levels of equilibrium—and happen when endocannabinoid molecules attach themselves like interlocking blocks to the cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. The endocannabinoids attach to the receptors to signal that the ECS has to take action.

Among the functions that contribute to homeostasis are motor control, stress, sleep, metabolism, digestion, and learning and memory.

Endocannabinoids work with two types of cannabinoid receptors—CB1 receptors, found mainly in the central nervous system, and CB2 receptors, mostly found in the peripheral nervous system (encompassing the immune system and nerves outside the brain and spinal cord), especially immune cells. 

While THC binds with our cannabinoid receptors, particularly those in the brain, CBD, instead of binding with the receptors, is believed to have an indirect influence on the endocannabinoid system; cannabidiol helps produce more endocannabinoids naturally.

 The body produces endocannabinoids as needed, as if assembling an ambulance and team of EMTs from scratch for each emergency, or ailing function, needing a response. Once the endocannabinoids have done their job, enzymes break them down.

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