Is Cannabis The New Kale
Trying to Clear The Smoke
If you work in behavioral health, then you've likely had more than a few cannabis-dependent clients who try to convince you how wonderful and harmless marijuana is. They say things like, "It's organic" or "It's all-natural." Obviously, organic and natural do not mean healthy. After all, poison ivy grows naturally, but it's probably not a good idea to roll around in it— or smoke it. Despite my poison ivy analogy, my clients often persist with their dissertation about why marijuana is the best thing since sliced bread. They often persist with, "The Indians used it." Or, "It makes me a creative genius." And my personal favorite, "I drive better after smoking weed." [FYI: Marijuana is the most common illegal drug involved in auto fatalities (United States Drug Enforcement Administration) and marijuana-impaired drivers are twice as likely to be involved in a crash (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020). For years, whenever a client would go to great lengths to convince me that their weed-smoking was a healthy practice, I would often joke by saying, "Sounds like smoking a big blunt is practically like taking a vitamin." It turns out my sarcasm may have been more accurate than I ever would have guessed. Let's explore.
Healing; My Story
My family became acquainted with medicinal cannabis during our own health crisis. Now obviously, I was no stranger to cannabis, having spent my social service career specializing in addiction treatment (and having attended college, concerts, and frat parties!-ha!).
As we searched the globe for the most innovative conventional and alternative treatments, I was challenged to see cannabis in a new light. Like most people facing a life-threatening diagnosis, we wanted the most cutting-edge, innovative treatments to assist in achieving wellness. Our regimen included strategies like a plant-based diet, the Budwig protocol, and 60+ supplements/herbs a day— as well as the use of Marinol (an FDA-approved synthetic THC drug) and various CBD products along the way.
There is no doubt in my mind that the numerous alternative strategies we utilized, led by God and a team of experts, were instrumental in our success. Although cannabis products were in my family's arsenal and proved to be extremely helpful during treatment to mitigate nausea and increase appetite, these products were not the centerpiece of our regimen. That said, there are people who contend that cannabis is the very reason they are still alive— I believe them, and have chosen to showcase a couple of these stories later in this course.
But first, let’s start at the beginning.
If you’re a red-blooded American, you’re likely familiar with marijuana (weed, ganja, pot, reefer), with its distinct/sweet odor often smelled at concert halls or sporting events. It’s what we typically think of when we hear the word "cannabis." It’s the drug of the hippie era (1960's), associated with unforgettable and timeless movies like Animal House and Cheech & Chong.
Marijuana generally contains a mixture of dried leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds from the cannabis plant that are used to get high. Marijuana can be laced with other drugs (such as cocaine or LSD) and is commonly smoked using pipes, bongs (water pipes), vapes, joints (a marijuana cigarette), or blunts (hollowed-out cigar filled with marijuana). Marijuana can also be mixed into foods (brownies, gummies, teas) called "edibles."
Many side effects of marijuana on the user's body, brain, and life are common knowledge, while other effects are not as well known. These side effects are expansive and include immediate, short-term, and long-term effects.
Feeling of being "high," which lasts 2-3 hours.
Balance, coordination, dizziness
Hunger (the "munchies")
Increased Heart Rate (tachycardia)
Affects the Brain/Impairs Thinking/School performance
Lung Damage/Respiratory disease
Risk to Unborn and Nursing Babies
Increased Risk of Psychiatric Disorders
"Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States, with approximately 22.2 million users each month" (Adams et al., 2015). In 2015, approximately 4 million people in the United States met the criteria for a cannabis use disorder and this rate has continued to rise (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020). And in 2019, approximately 48.2 million Americans aged 12 or older reportedly used marijuana in the past year (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2020).
Many people believe that marijuana is not addictive. For the record, Cannabis is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), with the same diagnostic criteria as other drugs of abuse. This means that use disorders are applicable whether we are talking about alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. And, discontinuing marijuana intake after prolonged use may cause withdrawal symptoms that include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, depressed mood, and loss of appetite. And of course, withdrawal only occurs as a result of addiction.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the chemical in marijuana that gets people high, and it's one of dozens of compounds (about 80-100) contained in the plant known as cannabinoids. THC stimulates the same part of the brain that responds to pleasures (like food, sex, etc.) and releases a chemical messenger called dopamine, which produces a euphoric, relaxed feeling.
The potency of marijuana has continued to increase over the years, from an average of less than 5% THC in the 1990s to around 15% in 2018. And in 2016, much of the marijuana confiscated by narcotics officers reportedly contained more than 35% THC (Cannatech, 2016). We have to remember that with higher THC comes higher risk for both addiction and accidents.
I'm often asked, "Is marijuana really the gateway drug" and my answer is simply, "Well, it is ONE of the gateway drugs." The truth is, addiction begins somewhere, and no one starts with a needle in their arm. In other words, no one wakes up one day and arbitrarily decides to shoot heroin. It just doesn't happen that way. Addiction generally begins in adolescence and tends to start with something far milder than heroin or crack. And, there is more than one substance that can serve as a gateway drug (tobacco products, alcohol, vaping). That said, there have been loads of research studies that indicate that Marijuana does lead to other drug use. One such study using rats showed that THC alters the reward system, increasing the likelihood the animal will self-administer other drugs (NIDA, 2020). This research speaks directly to the addictive nature of THC and supports the notion that Marijuana acts as a gateway drug.
The Feds Said No
Since 1971, cannabis has been classified by The Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and magic mushrooms. Schedule 1 drugs are deemed to have a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. And despite new research that indicates that cannabis may indeed have a place in medicine, this federal law is still on the books.
Schedule 1 Drugs - have no currently accepted medical value and high potential for abuse.
Healing With Cannabis
The cannabis plant is much more than just marijuana, as this plant has gained newfound respectability for its healing compounds. While there needs to be more valid studies, the potential medicinal properties of cannabis have resulted in tremendous public interest.
The cannabis plant contains approximately 400 different compounds and is packed with an array of special healing phytocannabinoids (between 80-100 depending on the strain). Each phytocannabinoid offers unique health benefits, with the most well-known and widely used cannabinoids being Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD). It's important to note that many other valuable cannabis compounds, such as Cannabichromene (CBC) and Cannabigerol CBG, are also being studied for their potential healing properties.
We've already discussed THC, so now it's time to look at its popular and trendy kissing cousin.
CBD (cannabidiol) is a cannabinoid that, unlike THC, produces no psychoactive effects. In other words, CBD is not mind-altering; which makes it favorable for people looking for the health benefits of cannabis without the psychoactive effects. CBD products that claim to have healing potential currently grace the shelves of retail outlets nationwide with products ranging from CBD-infused beverages and snacks to cosmetics, supplements, and dog treats. An online survey revealed that consumers are seeking out CBD products to treat a wide range of conditions, including chronic pain, anxiety, arthritis, insomnia, and depression (Pendick, 2021). Make no mistake; the cannabis industry is booming!
The lack of federal/state regulation of CBD, along with its newfound popularity, have led to the marketing of questionable products. As with many supplements, some companies have made unfounded claims about the efficacy of their products. That said, a growing number of studies are beginning to reveal the possible health benefits of CBD.
While more research is needed, so far, the science looks promising. Many studies involving animals have identified that CBD has the potential to reduce pain, inflammation, and anxiety, while improving mood and sleep. Studies are also being conducted to determine if CBD is useful in treating mental illness. (Pendick, 2020)
Negative Side Effects of CBD
Most consumers think that CBD is 100% safe to use. Although much of the available evidence suggests that there's not much in the way of dangerous side effects from CBD, more research is needed. The most common side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, anxiety, and changes in mood (Axe, 2019).
Cure For Disease/Health Benefits of Cannabis
So the question of the hour is, does cannabis cure disease?
The short answer is that we don't know for sure— but the research looks encouraging. For example, a committee of experts formed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reviewed about 10,000 cannabis studies. This panel concluded in 2017 that cannabis is effective treatment for chronic pain, muscle spasticity, and chemotherapy related nausea and vomiting (Pendick, 2020).
The following list is by no means comprehensive; rather, it's meant to give you an idea of the possible health benefits of cannabis.
Cancer Prevention, Treatment, and Side-effects of Treatment
Many research studies, along with loads of anecdotal evidence, continue to demonstrate that cannabis may prevent cancer and bolster the immune system, as well as kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. CBD has been shown in animal studies to prevent the spread of breast, prostate, brain, colon, and lung cancer (McAllister,2015). In addition to the antitumor effects, cannabis products have been proven to curb the horrendous side effects of cancer treatment (nausea, pain, neuropathy, etc.). Cannabis also increases appetite, helping cancer patients to maintain their weight during treatment (Pendick, 2020). The relaxing effect of cannabis reduces the anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis, which helps the patient to sleep better, improves mood, and brightens outlook. These multiple effects can cultivate "hope" and help to improve immune function and overall health. So while cannabis helps to reduce the side effects of cancer treatment, it may simultaneously have antitumor effects (win, win). Mice with pancreatic cancer lived nearly three times longer when given CBD than those treated with chemotherapy alone (Smith, 2018). And a 2014 study suggests that CBD may inhibit colorectal cancer cell proliferation and that CBD has no effect on healthy cells (ScienceDirect, 2014). Similarly, a 2019 study showed CBD may cause apoptosis, meaning it causes death to tumor cells (McAllister, 2015). “Another study showed that CBD inhibited the spread of aggressive breast cancer cells in mice” (McAllister, 2007).
Pain (Arthritis, Mulitple Sclerosis, Fibromyalgia, Etc.)
Components of marijuana, including CBD, have pain-relieving effects. Human studies have found that a THC/CBD combination may effectively treat pain related to multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
Glaucoma is an eye-related disease that injures the optic nerve of a human being by creating pressure on the eyeballs and can cause permanent loss of vision. Smoking marijuana reduces the pressure inside the eye and helps prevent the progression of glaucoma and blindness.
Recent studies show that cannabis can improve fine motor skills, reduce pain, and promote restful sleep for patients who have Parkinson's disease.
Though it does not affect this disease directly, cannabis has been shown to reduce the side effects caused by Hepatitis C treatment (muscle pain, loss of appetite, depression).
In research on mice, CBD reduced the incidence of diabetes by 56%. (Weiss. 2006).
Anxiety & Depression
CBD oil has shown promise as a treatment for anxiety and depression, without the harsh side-effects typically caused by prescribed pharmaceuticals (drowsiness, agitation, sleeplessness, sexual dysfunction, headaches, etc.).
CBD acts on the endocannabinoid and brain signaling systems, which may benefit those with neurological disorders like epilepsy and Multiple Sclerosis. Studies have shown that CBD oil reduced seizures by a median of 36.5% in epileptic patients and significantly reduced seizure activity in children (Devinsky, 2017).
CBD may improve heart health and reduce high blood pressure (Kubala, 2018).
CBD is shown to suppress cell memory, which may reduce the chances of autoimmune flare-ups.
CBD (not THC) has been shown in animal studies to reduce morphine dependence and heroin-seeking behavior (Prud’homme, 2015).
Cannabis is complex and intriguing. It's important to understand that the numerous compounds found in the cannabis plant affect the body differently, depending on which receptors they bind to, with some demonstrating increased efficacy in treating specific symptoms and conditions. To this point, it has also been demonstrated that combining cannabis compounds (like THC and CBD) increases its medicinal benefits. This combining of compounds to create a synergistic effect is referred to as the entourage effect. Another specific combination shown to increase therapeutic efficacy involves terpenoids (aka terpenes), which are the compounds responsible for the distinct aroma and taste of cannabis. These terpenoids have also been shown to interact synergistically with cannabinoids, thereby increasing the therapeutic value. Scientists continue to study how the right mixture of cannabis compounds can be crafted to target the right receptors and increase the benefits achieved.
Medical Cannabis Forms
Medical cannabis comes in many shapes and sizes:
Marijuana legalization began in California (of course) back in 1996. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, medical use of marijuana is currently permitted by law in 36 states and four territories (NCSL, 2021). Most of these states have laws that outline the amounts permitted for personal use and anything outside these limits is an arrestable offense. Additionally, most states require a doctor's authorization or a special permit to buy medical marijuana, as well as a qualifying condition.
Whether or not CBD is legal varies from state to state, often depending on the plant of origin. CBD that comes from hemp plants does not contain psychoactive THC and is therefore legal in all 50 states. However, it stands to reason that since marijuana is not legal in many states, neither is CBD that is derived from plants with high THC levels. “The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers any CBD products containing more than 0.3% THC as a Schedule I drug in states where the recreational use of cannabis is not legal” (Dier, 2021).
FDA Approved Cannabinoids Medications
There are several cannabinoid drugs approved by the FDA for prescription use. These drugs require a doctor's prescription, can be obtained at a pharmacy, contain synthetic THC (made in a lab- not from a plant) or purified CBD, and are covered by insurance.
Epidiolex- is an oral solution that contains concentrated CBD and effectively treats seizure disorders.
Dronabinol- contains synthetic THC (AKA Marinol, which comes in capsule form and Syndros that comes in an oral spray) used to relieve chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting and to stimulate appetite in patients at risk of unwanted weight loss.
Nabilone (Cesamet)- synthetic THC approved for treatment-resistant nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy.
Nabiximols (Sativex)- is a plant-derived from a mix of CBD and THC (1:1 ratio) used as a mouth spray. This medication is not yet approved in the U.S., but is approved in other countries for medical use. Prescribed for symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis and for cancer pain
Healing; True Stories
The following story from the October 2018 issue of People Magazine vividly illustrates the curative effect of the one-two punch produced by CBD plus THC (Dodd, 2018).
It was July 2014 and Jaclyn von Harz and her husband, Jim, knew their 3-year-old daughter Cecilia —whose right lung was filled with cancerous tumors — didn’t have much time or fight left in her tiny body.
“She was just so emaciated,” Jim tells PEOPLE in a story in this week’s magazine. “She’d lost all her hair, lost all her weight. There just wasn’t much of her left.”
Cecilia, it turns out, survived her battle with cancer, but that was only after her parents took the biggest risk of their lives — opting to discontinue her chemotherapy and turning to a drug that has been off-limits to doctors and researchers for the past 80 years: marijuana.
“When your child is sick,” explains Jaclyn, 35, “you get this instinctual feeling. I didn’t know that this would work, but I knew the other alternative would lead to death.”
The von Harz’s agonizing medical journey — along with that taken by several other families desperate to keep their children alive while battling cancer — is told in Weed The People, a new documentary by former talk show host Ricki Lake, focusing on medical marijuana and its use in pediatric cancer.
“This isn’t fringe science anymore,” says Los Angeles pediatrician Dr. Bonni Goldstein, an expert in cannibinoid therapy who worked with the von Harz family. “Studies have shown that cannabis can help kill cancer, in conjunction with chemotherapy, and also help fight the side effects of chemo.”
Adds Lake — who spent six years working on the documentary with director Abby Epstein: “Cannabis (marijuana’s scientific name) needs to be accepted and understood as a medicine. This is a human rights issue and everyone should have access to this plant if they need it.”
But as many in the medical community have grown open to marijuana’s use as a cancer therapy, it remains illegal, even for medical use, in 19 states. The federal government has designated marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning one with high potential for abuse. And the American Medical Association, while acknowledging anecdotal evidence of the drug’s efficacy with cancer patients, insists there is still a need for “scientifically valid and well-controlled clinical trials … to assess the safety and effectiveness” of cannabis in medical uses.
Cecilia’s parents first began giving their daughter tiny doses of the oils extracted from the marijuana plant to ease the debilitating effects of chemotherapy following her initial surgery — to remove a two-pound tumor from her right kidney — in April 2013. The oils contained the compounds THC, which gives the plant its “high,” and the non-intoxicating, powerful anti-inflammatory CDB.
“The doctors and nurses were amazed,” recalls Jaclyn. “She would sleep through her chemo.”
But 11 months later, the cancer returned and numerous tumors were detected in her right lung. Doctors began treating her with radiation therapy and a more powerful form of chemo that quickly wreaked havoc on her weakened body, particularly on her liver.
Her parents were soon convinced the treatment would kill her before the cancer did.
That was when the von Harzes opted to stop the chemotherapy and instead, working with Dr. Goldstein, start Cecilia on higher doses — 400 mg. a day — of both the THC and CBD oils.
“We were scared to death,” says Jaclyn. “But this was our one and only chance to save our daughter.”
Three months later, in October 2014, they began to see results. Scans revealed Cecilia’s tumors had either disappeared or greatly shrunk in size — and she’s shown no sign or symptoms of the cancer since.
“We’ll never know if it was the cannabis,” says Dr. Goldstein, “or the chemo or the combination of the two.”
What’s important to the Von Harzes is that 7-year-old Cecilia is now energetic and healthy — and they’re committed to doing everything they can to keep her that way. “
You can’t put a price on a human life,” says Jim, 37, a Los Angeles firefighter. “I was willing to break any rule, sacrifice my own life and my career for Cecilia — and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”
The Figi Family
I first saw this story outlined in A CNN Special Report by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, entitled Weed, which is a profound educational piece on the topic of medical cannabis (a must watch— but grab the tissues!). There is no way we could have a course that discusses medical cannabis without telling this story.
Matt and Paige Figi's daughter, Charlotte, had her first seizure at three months old and was later diagnosed with Dravet syndrome. "By the time she was 5, she was wheelchair-bound, receiving sustenance through a feeding tube, seizing about 350 times per week, and on several occasions she had to be shocked back to life after her heart stopped. Doctors once recommended a medically induced coma just so her body could rest" (Velasquez-Manoff,, 2019).
In 2011, the Figi's gave their daughter a concentrated CBD extract and the seizures almost entirely disappeared. The results were miraculous and completely transformative, as Charlotte began to live like a normal/happy child.
It didn't take long before CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, caught wind of this story. Dr. Gupta, who was against the legalization of marijuana, decided to do a story that would feature the Figi family. Gupta met with the Figi's in their home, got to know their family, and watched videos that chronicled the horrific daily seizures. Gupta also got to see the same child— riding a bike and giggling with her siblings (thanks to medical cannabis). Gupta, moved to tears, asked for the cameras to be turned off while he gathered himself (Velasquez-Manoff,, 2019). After seeing this story first hand, Dr. Gupta's stance on medical cannabis forever changed.
Sadly Charlotte passed away in 2020 from complications from pneumonia. She will be greatly missed and remembered for bravely leading many to a place of healing.
FYI: The Stanley Brothers operated the Colorado growing company who provided the Figi's with their high CBD products. They later founded the popular Charlottes Web brand, named of course, in honor of Charlotte Figi. Charlotte's Web products are bred for their high CBD and low THC content and continue to be used to treat children with seizure disorders and other health concerns.
A Final Word
When you review the literature, you will discover that while marijuana addiction is both prevalent and devastating, cannabis may also have a wide range of healing properties. Cannabis may potentially prevent and heal chronic illnesses (and in a less invasive manner than conventional treatments). In light of the pros and cons, state laws need strict parameters and more cannabis research is necessary.
Clinical research is needed to uncover the full potential of cannabis and to perfect things like dosing, cultivating strains for specific ailments, and capitalizing on the entourage effect. I’m talking about legitimate human studies, conducted using the methods required to get drugs approved by the FDA. These studies must involve large numbers of people and be randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.
That's a Wrap
This training was (of course) written to expand your knowledge about cannabis, but it’s truly dedicated to all of those people who are facing a steep medical challenge.
Over the years, my opinions about cannabis have evolved. And unfortunately, this awakening came to me in a very personal way— during an extremely difficult time. From a dark place…facing a life-threatening diagnosis…searching for the most innovative treatments…willing to do anything to achieve wellness.
While “personal health” is a private matter and the use of cannabis is not the right fit for everyone, please know there are many other alternative therapies available to combat illness. If someone you love could benefit from this course, feel free to pass it along. And for information about other alternative therapies, go to findyourstrong.info.
We’ve always known that cannabis can offer a "high," but we may find that it actually has a "higher purpose."
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