Weed Science 

Montana chemists bring quality control to medical cannabis

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"CBD has an extremely safe profile in humans, and it has been clinically evaluated (albeit in preliminary fashion) for the treatment of anxiety, psychosis, and movement disorders," reads the study. "There is good pre-clinical evidence to warrant clinical studies into its use for the treatment of diabetes, ischemia and cancer...

"The plant cannabis is a source of several other neglected photocannabinoids such as CBC and CBG," the study continues. "Although the spectrum of pharmacological effects of these compounds is largely unexplored, their potential action...might make these compounds new and attractive tools for pain management."

Geci summarizes CBD this way: "There's no question in my mind that it's a blockbuster chemical."

What CBD doesn't do is make you feel high.

"So, without a lab—without somebody who can use the instrumentation—you're almost never going to be able to identify this through living-room empirical studies," Palmer says. "Some guy is not going to sit down in his kitchen and say, 'Wow, my joints don't hurt any more. I feel so good.' They don't do that."

But Palmer seldom finds CBD. In nearly a year of testing, he's only analyzed three strains that contain a meaningful amount of it. Why? He says it's because cannabis growers have for decades been so focused on breeding strains with high THC content that some of the other cannabinoids—the ones that don't make you stoned—were disregarded.

"I hate to use this word," Palmer says, "but cannabis in Montana—everywhere—is really boring. It's almost all THC...because everybody's been so good at breeding THC into their plants and not focusing on these other cannabinoids. There's been no instrumentation and no science to help them identify unique strains. They smoke it a couple times and they don't get as high, so they trash it; they cut it down and get rid of it."

click to enlarge Noel Palmer, a doctor in analytical chemistry, explains the biosynthetic pathway of cannabis, and the therapeutic potential of one often-overlooked cannabinoid, CBD. “It’s not about THC anymore,” Palmer says. “It’s about everything, the blend. It’s all of these in there. We think of them working symbiotically.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Noel Palmer, a doctor in analytical chemistry, explains the biosynthetic pathway of cannabis, and the therapeutic potential of one often-overlooked cannabinoid, CBD. “It’s not about THC anymore,” Palmer says. “It’s about everything, the blend. It’s all of these in there. We think of them working symbiotically.”

Palmer pulls out another printout of raw data and points to a big blip on the chart. It's a test of "the most interesting strain" he's seen yet in Montana.

"This one's very interesting because CBD, that peak right there, usually you see nothing there," he says.

He won't name the strain because of a confidentiality agreement, but he says it was the ugly duckling of pot plants grown from a random bag of seeds. The grower nonetheless brought a sample to him and it contained the most CBD Palmer had ever seen.

"When we find it I go ape-shit," Palmer says of CBD. "I call the client and say, 'Give me more. I want to make sure you have it in there.'"

Developing cannabis strains with high CBD content—or isolating it in other forms—appeals to Palmer and Geci largely because it has the potential to make cannabis' medical benefits more accessible.

"THC in and of itself has some definite therapeutic benefits," Geci says. "It's a cancer-fighting substance. But a lot of people find that the psycho-active aspects of THC are uncomfortable. Even for the casual user who enjoys catching a buzz now and then, if you give them too much it can be a very uncomfortable experience, very trippy.

"What a shame it would be," he continues, "for, say, a 50-year-old person who wants to use cannabis for pain relief and gets a strain that's too potent. The caregiver doesn't warn him about it, he takes a couple hits...and it can be a truly frightening experience. And then he says, 'I don't want to use this anymore.' And all because the quality control methodologies that every other medicine and chemical and supplement in the country is mandated to do, cannabis isn't. So that's the mission here, to bring this to a different level."

And there are many levels. In June, the UK became the first to approve Sativex, an oral spray consisting of extracts of THC and CBD developed to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). Spain approved the spray in July, Canada approved it in August, and New Zealand approved it in early November. The ratio of THC to CBD is 2.7 mg to 2.5 mg per spray, ensuring a standardized dose.

GW Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Sativex, reports that over one third of MS patients in the UK may be using cannabis illegally for its medical benefits.

"If cannabinoid-based medicines can safely provide relief from any symptom of MS, they will not only improve the quality of life of people with the condition but also the people who care for them," writes the UK's MS Society. "The benefits of a drug that can restore some aspect of normal work and social life cannot be overestimated."

In the U.S., Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Cannabis Science, a biotech company developing pharmaceutical cannabis products, is leading the push for FDA clinical trials, regardless of the drug's legal status. (Incidentally, Cannabis Science announced in June it planned to acquire Missoula-based Montana Pain Management, but the deal fell through in August.)

Palmer says the science showing the therapeutic effects of cannabis, and especially CBD, has become undeniable.

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