What’s in Your Weed?

What you don’t know might hurt you

What's in Your Weed?
[Credit: Torben Hansen, flickr.com]
By | Posted November 23, 2010
Posted in: Health

Editor’s note: Some of you may have seen this story appear on the Scienceline site a few days ago and then disappear.  It was removed to make sure it was fully copy edited as per our usual editing stream to double check for grammatical errors.  If you have any questions about our editing policies, please email info@scienceline.org.


When Valerie Curran asked college students to put her in touch with their doobie-smoking friends, she was being serious.

Curran is neither a drug dealer nor abuser, but she does tote a license to carry marijuana. She is a scientist at University College London, where she’s studying the impact of drugs on memory. Her most recent research explored marijuana use in a naturalistic setting: college-aged kids, in their own homes, smoking from their own stashes.

That may sound controversial, but Curran has a pragmatic outlook on illegal drug use: “Cannabis is the world’s most popular illegal substance,” she said. “If people are going to use it, they should be safe and we should know the possible impacts.”

In fact, as the scientific studies about marijuana accumulate, it’s getting harder to understand why the substance remains illicit, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington, D.C.

Curran’s study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in October, tested each of its 134 participants on two separate days—once when they were sober and once when they were stoned. On both days, she read them a short passage and tested their memory of its content immediately after hearing it, and again 30 to 40 minutes later. Then she took a sample of their marijuana to test in the lab later.

It turned out the kids smoking weed containing lots of the chemical cannabidiol (CBD) could remember details of the story just as well stoned as sober. Meanwhile, those smoking the low-CBD marijuana fit the stereotype of the forgetful pothead.

The findings fit into a growing library of data demonstrating the possible health benefits of CBD, which is naturally found in marijuana. CBD appears to fend off cancerous tumors, prevent diabetes and epileptic seizures, and protect nerve cells from degradation. It doesn’t combat the effects of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that causes a “high,” and can even prevent anxiety. On top of all that, Curran’s preliminary research suggests that CBD can help prevent marijuana users from becoming addicted to the substance.

“CBD has a vast array of potential therapeutic properties,” said Armentano. “We don’t have conventional medicine on the market right now that can yield these responses.”

But what worries Curran is that recreational users in Europe and America smoke marijuana that’s increasingly low in CBD, at the expense of their health and possibly their own smoking preference; seventy-five percent of the study’s participants smoked strains with high THC and low CBD, but only 34% said it was their favorite type of weed. “Experienced users probably prefer high CBD, but they can’t get it,” said Curran, pointing out CBD’s anti-anxiety properties.

Leslie King, a forensic scientist and consultant for the United Kingdom’s Department of Health, speculates that this pattern is supply-driven: the threat of fines and jail-time for marijuana possession drives dealers to grow their product instead of import it. And as they breed the plants with the sole aim of increasing THC levels, CBD falls by the wayside simply due to chance, he surmises.

Strains with high THC and high CBD do exist, but recreational users have no way of knowing the CBD content of their weed—you can’t see it, smell it, or taste it.

In California, where medical marijuana is legal, analytics labs like Steep Hill and Rm3 test patients’ marijuana samples for their THC and CBD content, but only for medical purposes, and only in California.

ProjectCBD, a group that promotes research on the medical utility of CBD, and the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center, a medical marijuana supplier, provide the THC and CBD levels of several strains of cannabis on their websites. This information has limited applicability, however, since what passes for “Purple Diesel” in Los Angeles isn’t necessarily the same weed as “Purple Diesel” in San Francisco, let alone New York.

Although standardization cannot be achieved on the black market, it could be if marijuana were legalized, said Tom Angell, spokesman for Yes on Prop 19, an organization advocating the legalization and taxation of marijuana in California. As evidence he cites the labs testing for potency, mold, contaminants, and CBD content that sprang up once California legalized medical marijuana.

Armentano has no doubt that standardization and labeling would become regular practice if recreational marijuana were legalized.

“What if every time you bought a can of beer you had no idea how drunk it was going to get you?” he asked. “I think all consumers want to know what’s in the products they’re using.” Proper labeling is essential to protect consumers and allow them to make informed choices, he added.

“We definitely can’t have that right now, under Prohibition,” Angell points out. “We leave all that up to the gangs and the drug cartels.”

Even if legalization and standardization for recreational use would make marijuana safer, Angell and Armentano agree that it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Organizations like Nip It In The Bud and the League Against Intoxicants are opposed to marijuana legalization under any circumstances, and the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, meaning it’s considered to have no potential medical use.

When asked to comment on whether legalization could potentially lead to standardization for optimal health and safety, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration simply reiterated that “scientific studies have never established that marijuana can be used safely and effectively for the treatment of any disease or condition.”

Others disagree about what the science says. “We know it has medical benefits,” said Peter Clark, a bioethicist at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “The issue now is legal and political.”

And despite indications that CBD has a slew of potential health benefits on its own, doesn’t impact mood, doesn’t cause intoxication, and has a lower risk of overdose than ibuprofen, only a handful of researchers in the United States can acquire permission to work with the substance. This is simply because of its association with the marijuana plant, said Armentano. He hopes policies and attitudes will change as we continue learning about marijuana and CBD from studies like Curran’s, which are carried out in other countries.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “in the United States especially, I don’t think science drives public policy.”

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  1. “Unfortunately,” he added, “in the United States especially, I don’t think science drives public policy.”

    This has to be one of the saddest, and truest statements I’ve heard in a long time.

    And, thank you, Scienceline, and Sarah Fecht, for covering the topic of CBD content, and reviewing the unjustifiable position taken by the DEA vis a vis research on this amazing substance. High CBD content cannabis is the only thing that gives relief to my husband during extremely painful gout attacks. He is allergic to NSAIDs.

    By the way, an overdose of ibuprofen can be fatal. An overdose of CDB is essentially harmless.

    Brinna Nanda, November 23, 2010 at 8:57 pm
  2. We knew that all along.

    I forget, November 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm
  3. This is why we should be aloud to grow our own green herb.

    Bill, November 24, 2010 at 12:23 pm
  4. “Unfortunately,” he added, “in the United States especially, I don’t think science drives public policy.” If anyone is unaware of this, then they are very ignorant as to how the U.S. government works. Unfortunately about half of our population is a little dumber than ignorant, so what can we do other than sit back and wait for all the old people to die and let the new generations lead our country in sensibility. In reality prohibiting cannabis is unconstitutional, it took an amendment to prohibit alcohol, so whats different about cannabis? Also no where in the constitution does it give the government the authority to tell me or anyone what they can and can not put into there bodies. What does this mean? IT SHOULD BE LEFT TO THE STATES TO DECIDE. Let doctors and scientist, decide whether it’s a safe effective drug, and let the people of every state decide whether or not it can be legal in their state. I think I get angrier every single day about prohibition and ranting like this helps me get it off my mind a little. One last thing, annually the equivalent of the entire population of Montana dies from the use of tobacco and alcohol(roughly 500,000). Annually 0 people die from using cannabis. Pure facts.

    William Archer, November 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm
  5. More on the therapeutic efficacy of CBD and other non-psychoactive plant cannabinoids:

    Non-psychotropic plant cannabinoids: new therapeutic opportunities from an ancient herb
    Angelo A. Izzo1, 4, , Francesca Borrelli1, 4, Raffaele Capasso1, 4, Vincenzo Di Marzo2, 4 and Raphael Mechoulam3

    http://www.cell.com/trends/pharmacological-sciences/abstract/S0165-6147(09)00128-X

    1 Department of Experimental Pharmacology, University of Naples Federico II, Naples, Italy
    2 Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry, National Research Council, Pozzuoli (NA), Italy
    3 Department of Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products, Hebrew University Medical Faculty, Jerusalem, Israel
    4 Endocannabinoid Research Group, Italy

    Here, we provide an overview of the recent pharmacological advances, novel mechanisms of action, and potential therapeutic applications of such non-psychotropic plant-derived cannabinoids. Special emphasis is given to cannabidiol, the possible applications of which have recently emerged in inflammation, diabetes, cancer, affective and neurodegenerative diseases, and to Δ9-tetrahydrocannabivarin, a novel CB1 antagonist which exerts potentially useful actions in the treatment of epilepsy and obesity

    Paul Armentano, November 24, 2010 at 12:31 pm
  6. “But what worries Curran is that recreational users in Europe and America smoke marijuana that’s increasingly low in CBD, at the expense of their health and possibly their own smoking preference; seventy-five percent of the study’s participants smoked strains with high THC and low CBD, but only 34% said it was their favorite type of weed. “Experienced users probably prefer high CBD, but they can’t get it,” said Curran, pointing out CBD’s anti-anxiety properties.”

    So, high CBD levels are usually associated with low grade marijuana?
    Because, I’ve read an article that claims that low-grade marijuana has been shown to prevent anxiety in comparison to high-grade marijuana.

    Brittney G, November 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm
  7. Great article. Yet,why did you write,”Curran is neither a drug dealer nor abuser”. It looks as if there is no third choice,drug user. To imply that all who use drugs,abuse them,is just wrong.

    Tom, November 24, 2010 at 12:41 pm
  8. a marijuana “abuser” only exists in the ignorant world we live in today. There is no way to abuse marijuana. Any one problem you could muster up to attribute with marijuana is all just relevant to todays current laws. Monetarily.

    will, November 24, 2010 at 12:52 pm
  9. Right now, Hemp is an untouched market and “Big Brother” wants it to stay that way because of the Kissingers and the Rockefellers. Most people my age use it like alcohol. At least with Cannabis, you can remain in control and not kill your wife or kids. Being that GW Pharmaceuticals just bought the rights to Medical Cannabis, they want to take and separate the cannabanoids out of the marijuana for all the different symptoms. Who is to head this up? Washington DC.

    Connie, November 24, 2010 at 1:10 pm
  10. @will

    Come on man, we know the deal. I smoke weed with extreme pleasure and joy as well, but there ARE cases where people seriously do abuse marijuana. Although it doesn’t get to the point of abuse similar to alcohol or other drugs, because any of those can cause an overdose death while cannabis cannot, some people use it way more often than they should.

    A perfect example is my older brother. He spends literally all day every day with his bowl any moment he is home, which is often all the time (other than work). When he leaves for work in the morning, he always has a bowl in his hand, packed, ready to go. Has some with him for lunch, and the ride home after work. When home, he spends virtually every minute with the bowl in his hand, a tissue or something in the other hand to clean the bowl because he has nothing better to do.

    Now we all know it’s called moderation. You have to limit the amount you intake, especially when you’re putting yourself and others at risk by smoking while on the job with heavy machinery. He hasn’t learned that, and therefore, people can abuse it.

    I support cannabis as much as anyone else, and await the day that it is legalized most vehemently. But be honest. You know at least ONE person who takes it just over the edge. When we’re telling the truth and expressing real facts, it boosts our credibility, unlike the government, who has already lost so much credibility on the war on drugs that even major news outlets in today’s society denounce it, and ask for a scientific policy, not a political policy.

    On the other hand, my brother has Crohn’s Disease, and receives his medical benefits through the use of cannabis. So, there’s 2 sides to the story, but when what you’re smoking is 4 ounces of shitty weed (called mids in PA) in a few weeks, that’s a problem. Could get a lot higher and a lot more medical benefit from a single ounce of good weed (heds), and spend less overall. However, since he began smoking, he doesn’t take any prescription pills anymore, almost 10-12 years after it really flared up for him.

    So tl;dr Yes, it can be abused, however it still has very good medical uses.

    Ben, November 24, 2010 at 1:48 pm
  11. “We definitely can’t have that right now, under Prohibition,” Angell points out. “We leave all that up to the gangs and the drug cartels.”

    Great article. I understand the point of this statement, but it implies that this is the only means to obtain the cannabis plant. It does not acknowledge the thousands of peaceful growers who take a huge personal risk to enjoy this plant and who refuse to have anything to do gangs and cartels.

    No1UKnow, November 24, 2010 at 2:08 pm
  12. I agree with William Archer. The government shouldn’t be able to decide that we can’t use Cannabis. I don’t think the states should be able to either. I think everyone should be able to grow it on the own just like any other produce.

    I think there should be laws that prohibit it’s sale for medicinal purposes. I believe that anyone who aspires to cultivate cannabis should be able to do so except there should be labs that test it for certain compounds that would be beneficial and then determine what that particular strain could be potentially used for. Even then I think you should be able to sell it if you wanted to.

    I don’t believe it should be illegal to distill ethanol or sell liquor. I do however think alcohol is very harmful and the drinking age should be increased up to 23 or 25 years of age. There are soo many uses for ethanol (vodka) in everyday use: http://www.thegreenestdollar.com/2010/01/10-cool-household-uses-for-vodka/.

    Also here are some links relating to Alzheimer’s, cancer and tumors, and opiate dependence (sorry Paul Armentano, I’m not trying to one-up you):
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2562334/?tool=pmcentrez
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070417193338.htm
    http://www.medpagetoday.com/HematologyOncology/LungCancer/3393
    http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v34/n11/full/npp200970a.html

    Ray, November 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm
  13. “a public affairs officer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration simply reiterated that “scientific studies have never established that marijuana can be used safely and effectively for the treatment of any disease or condition.””

    That’s not true. Many pharmacological preparations were cannabis or cannabis based prior to Prohibition.

    http://www.drugstoremuseum.com/sections/level_info2.php?level=3&level_id=169

    Why lie, DEA? All of the lies can be refuted. Sheesh.

    DragonTat2, November 24, 2010 at 6:08 pm
  14. “Experienced users probably prefer high CBD, but they can’t get it,” said Curran, pointing out CBD’s anti-anxiety properties.”

    They can’t get it because of the quasi-legal status. most if not all growers harvest as early as they can, to cash in, but also because they’ve learned that when you harvest early THC levels are at their highest and that’s what everybody’s after.

    also, the window for good CBD is probably very short, as the plant quickly produces CBN, which is bad news.

    the timeline reads like this: THC>CBD>CBN>worthless. the way weed usually is harvested is kinda like eating a fruit before it’s ripe. no good.

    Tyler, November 24, 2010 at 7:49 pm
  15. @dragontat: “Why lie, DEA? All of the lies can be refuted.”

    Because they are required to lie by statute – at least, they are not allowed to say anything but negative things about cannabis.

    Why does the federal government require its agency to lie? Because the prohibition of cannabis is based on a big lie – that cannabis is bad.

    And what kind of government would prohibit such a valuable plant, based on lies? The same government that invades countries, bombs women and children, tortures, and throws more of its population into jail than communist China or the Soviet Union.

    End Prohibition and end this madness of unjust dominion.

    divadab, November 25, 2010 at 11:43 am
  16. @Tyler I’m pretty sure thc does not degrade into cbd. thc and cbd both degrade into cbn though. I believe the thc/cbd levels have more to do with the plants genetics. People should start really pushing strains like Cannatonic which was tested at Spannabis with results of around 6%THC and 7%CBN. Need strains like that in every dispensary not just 1 or 2.

    casualty, November 26, 2010 at 5:28 am
  17. So-called “industrial hemp” typically has higher concentrations of CBDs than psychoactive ‘marijuana’ strains.

    So-called “industrial hemp” produces VERY little THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

    More money is spent attempting to eradicate (without success) industrial hemp (aka, “ditchweed”) in the US than is spent attempting to eradicate marijuana (without success).

    What does that tell you about the DEA ? The FDA ? The government is working for the pharmaceutical industry, not for the American taxpayer, funding our own self-destruction.

    Regarding “a public affairs officer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration simply reiterated that “scientific studies have never established that marijuana can be used safely and effectively for the treatment of any disease or condition.””

    Not true.

    If it was, then why would the U.S. government “own the patent” [sic] on medical marijuana?

    The U.S. Patent Office issued patent #6630507 to the U.S.Health and Human Services filed on 2/2/2001. The patent lists the use of certain cannabinoids found within the cannabis sativa plant as useful in certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and HIV dementia.

    Also, since the THC molecule is too heavy to be transported during the steam distillation process, used to make Cannabis essential oils (0.00% THC content), essential oils made from “industrial hemp” fit the DEA’s own definition of a “legal” hemp product,

    “DEA believes that…“hemp” products [which] do not cause THC to enter the human body..are therefore legal products”

    yet are still banned in spite of their known therapeutic value.

    No surprise, the DEA has a criminally misleading definition of hemp on-line here

    “DEA Clarifies Status of Hemp in the Federal Register”
    http://www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/pressrel/pr100901.html

    Paul J. von Hartmann, November 27, 2010 at 3:46 pm
  18. Misleading the public about what hemp is, continued…

    “Low-quality “ditchweed” marijuana also continues to be available.”
    — DEA

    http://www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/state_factsheets/iowa.html

    “Ditchweed is a type of marijuana that grows wild. ”
    footnote (c) in the Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics Online
    http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/pdf/t4382005.pdf

    Paul J. von Hartmann, November 27, 2010 at 4:27 pm
  19. yea i think we should be aloud to grow our own that way we know whats in it an not have tp worry about all the chemicals put in it.

    maces, January 10, 2011 at 3:06 pm
  20. I think much of the “new” science of Cannabis has a tendency to “daze and confuse” people (users and non-users alike) especially inexperienced users. The scientific data doesn’t always “add up”. There’s a HUGE difference between experiencing the effects of Cannabis in one’s body and the data obtained by looking at it through a microscope in a laboratory. There are so many other factors involved with analyzing the effects of Cannabis that are rarely spoken or written about; one example would be the overall health of the user, another would be the user’s diet, still another would be the amount of activity (exercise, etc.)partaken by the user.

    We’re talking about a plant here, quite possibly of prehistoric origins, going back millions (if not billions) of years, LONG before we humans began cultivating it. We only have roughly 6~5 thousand years of studying and documenting Cannabis which is only a drop in the bucket compared to how long the plant has been around, evolving and adapting to the ever-changing environment of the planet.

    David, April 12, 2012 at 10:09 am
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