INTERVIEW: Martin Lee of Project CBD

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PHOTO: Sam Sabzehzar/Medical Marijuana 411:The Daily Dose

I met author Martin Lee during the New Jersey stop on his book tour for Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific.

Lee, the co-founder and director of Project CBD, granted me a lively interview between a book signing event, an NPR interview, and a party in his honor – all within a 24-hour period during which Lee also fielded phone calls and emails from patients seeking high-CBD medical cannabis.

VANESSA WALTZ: How would you explain CBD to someone who knows nothing about cannabis?

SmokeSignalsMARTIN LEE: There are two dominant cannabinoids in cannabis: THC and CBD, tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol. And CBD is the yin to THC’s yang.

THC is the “high-causer,” the main psychoactive component of the plant, and CBD is a therapeutic compound that can treat dozens of conditions.

THC and CBD work together, and they have a very interesting relationship: it’s synergistic and oppositional at the same time.

CBD amplifies THC’s pain-killing ability, so in that way, THC and CBD magnify each other.  And yet CBD can also neutralize the psychoactivity of THC, and it can take the “edge” off of THC, the stoniness that some patients find unpleasant.

VW: That would certainly be appealing to many patients. So why is it so hard to find medical marijuana with high CBD content outside of California and Colorado?

ML: It used to be that many strains had lots of CBD in them, but over the years, growers were selecting plants that produced more of a pronounced “high” for recreational use, and those were the plants that contained less CBD and more THC. So essentially, the CBD was inadvertently bred out over the years, and there weren’t really any CBD-rich strains around for recreational use. And if there were – even in dispensaries – no one really wanted them.

VW: But people sure want those CBD-rich strains now!

ML: There’s certainly a great deal of current interest, both inside and outside of the medical marijuana community. CBD doesn’t get you high but it’s creating quite a buzz.

VW: I’ve heard some activists say that promoting CBD-rich medicine can be a slippery slope, because politicians and prohibitionists hear about it and want all medicinal marijuana to be “no high” marijuana…

ML: Yes, that’s what the drug warriors – the prohibitionists – would say: “Ok, we’ll concede that CBD is a beneficial compound, but THC is dangerous; THC is the bad cannabinoid” Project CBD categorically rejects this notion. We don’t see THC as the psychoactive part and CBD as the therapeutic part. That dichotomy is simplistic and misleading.

VW: Tell us a little bit about Project CBD and how it got started.

ML: Project CBD was launched by me and Fred Gardner in 2009, and we had great input early on from Sarah Russo.

I was researching Smoke Signals and started hearing about CBD research at science conferences where medical scientists were really swooning over it – and they’re not swooners as a general rule.

cbdAfter Steep Hill, the first commercial cannabis testing lab in California, opened in 2007, they began to stumble upon a few CBD-rich strains. As these strains were re-discovered, Fred and I decided to launch Project CBD as an educational service to inform the medical marijuana community about cannabidiol and the science of cannabis therapeutics.

We didn’t know what the therapeutic impact of CBD would be when actually used by people as part of a plant rather than studied as a molecule in a lab, but we suspected it could be very significant.

VW: What were some of your thoughts at the beginning, before anyone really knew CBD’s true potential?

ML: We certainly didn’t predict that CBD would be a miraculous remedy for kids with epilepsy. We didn’t know that. We thought that CBD had a lot of medicinal potential, given what preclinical research had shown. And we also felt that CBD could be a tool for social change, a tool for moving the national discussion about cannabis forward in a sensible way.

Martin Lee and Ladybud Publisher Diane Fornbacher Photo: Vanessa Waltz

Lee with Ladybud Publisher Diane Fornbacher
Photo: Vanessa Waltz

VW: Can you explain what you envisioned in terms of social change?

ML: When we launched Project CBD, no state had legalized for adult (recreational) use yet. At the time, we thought that CBD could help tip the balance in favor of efforts to end cannabis prohibitions because CBD, in addition to being a potent medicine, is a potent myth-buster. It challenges myths about the plant that drug warriors continue to promote. First and foremost, CBD debunks the myth that medical marijuana is really a front for stoners.

When it comes to CBD, there’s no valid response politically from the other side [prohibitionists]. What can they say about a compound that’s not psychoactive, has no known side effects, and has many therapeutic uses? CBD forces the issue so that it’s impossible for drug warriors to argue that cannabis should be prohibited.

VW: A lot of families are migrating to Colorado, so their epileptic children can try Charlotte’s Web, the high CBD strain that has caused so much buzz for successfully controlling seizures. Do you think the same quality of CBD medication can be found in other parts of the country?

ML: There’s still a lot of learning going on: people who know little about cannabis hear about CBD and some assume that what they need is one particular cannabinoid, just CBD, or this one particular strain called Charlotte’s Web that’s CBD dominant with little THC. There are other CBD-dominant strains, much like Charlotte’s Web, that are not psychoactive and potentially beneficial.

VW: A 20:1 CBD:THC strain like Charlotte’s Web isn’t psychotropic, but what about a 3:2 or 1:1 strain or extraction?

extractML: With a 3:2, a person may experience a very mild psychoactivity, a feeling that’s very different than getting bowled over by a THC-dominant edible, for example. CBD-rich edibles are more nuanced, yet quite effective.

VW: Can you describe the feeling?

ML: It’s like you’re relaxing in the cradle of your own being. It’s pronounced relaxation, but not sluggishness. It’s more like a runner’s high or a meditation high. Some people are very sensitive to THC. They don’t enjoy being stoned on marijuana, but they could benefit from cannabis therapeutically. So a CBD-rich strain might be a more viable option for them. People who find THC-dominant marijuana to be dysphoric rather than euphoric would probably prefer to take a 20:1 CBD:THC remedy.

VW: Right now, you certainly couldn’t go in to a New Jersey dispensary and access high CBD strains. When do you see this being readily available in places other than Colorado and California?

ML: It’s difficult to talk about in terms of dates per se.

The fact of the matter is, you could have CBD-rich extracts here in New Jersey next month if you wanted. This could be easily arranged. I know that there are people interested in making that happen, but it would be an underground effort because of needless restrictions on medical marijuana in New Jersey and other northeast states, for that matter, that make providing CBD-rich cannabis nearly impossible.

VW: So when you get a caller from a non-medical state who says, “I’m a 70-year-old patient and I have no idea where to get pot,” what advice do you give them?



ML: I’m glad you asked that question, because it happens all the time.

If they specifically want to get measurable doses of high-quality, CBD-rich oil extracts, they can come to California, or find a friend or relative in California – they don’t have to travel if they’re too ill. The friend or relative would have to act as their caregiver, and help them get a letter of recommendation from a doctor.

We can also point them toward physicians who specialize in cannabis therapeutics and CBD-rich treatment regimens. Someone from out of state or out of the country can fly to LA or SF, get a hotel room for a few days, go to the DMV and establish a temporary residency, and get a doctor’s recommendation. Once they’ve done this, they can go to a dispensary, or they can order extracts from the Statewide Collective.

Statewide is not a dispensary; it’s an all-state collective, it’s online and you can join it for free. Then, you can access the extracts that Statewide makes with very specific ratios of CBD to THC, from 20:1 all the way up to a 1:1 ratio with variations in between. They’re very good quality critical CO2 extractions. It’s good medicine. People are able to know what they’re getting, how much they’re getting, and adjust what they’re getting in consultation with their doctor.

VW: And what do you tell people regarding when they have to leave California and go home?

ML: What people do with their medicine is their business. A lot of people come in from medical states in the northeast. These patients have certification in their home state, but they can’t get CBD-rich medicine there. If they fly to California and get certification in California, they can fly back with it. And if they can’t travel to a state where CBD-rich medicine is available, Project CBD can sometimes help them find other sources that will enable patients to obtain what they are seeking.

VW: Is this part of the interview, or are you telling me this off the record?

ML: You can include it. CBD-rich cannabis is still illegal in the United States. And in this case, to respect the law is morally wrong. You have to break the law if people need to access CBD – it’s a moral imperative. It’s unfortunate it’s that way, but the laws that prohibit cannabis are hideously wrong. We need to change the laws. But even when we change the laws, officials stand in the way of the implementation of the laws. They did that in California, they’re doing that big time in New Jersey, and they’re pussyfooting around in all these other states.

The news is spreading quickly: people are now hearing about CBD and they’re hearing about it helping more than just Dravet’s or epilepsy. Project CBD gets a lot of inquiries from people around the world; the majority of these inquiries are not about epilepsy.

All kinds of people struggling with various conditions can benefit from this.