Jacobson and other parents I spoke with argue that in difficult medical cases, doctors are already tinkering with potentially toxic drugs, so why can’t they — the parents or the patients — experiment with a less-toxic product? Why can’t everyone? Scientists could search for signals on what to study in this sea of self-experimentation. Realm of Caring, still run by Heather Jackson, is already doing this in partnership with academic researchers, sharing data from a 55,000-person registry that includes information on what people are using cannabis for and what side effects and benefits they see.
The tip came from a father named Jason David, with whom Jacobson began talking by chance outside a presentation hall. He wasn’t a presenter or even very interested in the goings-on at the conference. He had mostly lost faith in conventional medicine during his own family’s ordeal. But he claimed to have successfully treated his son’s seizures with a cannabis extract, and now he was trying to spread the word to anyone who would listen.
Nor are most drugs completely free of side effects. In the standard drug-approval process, observed side effects are noted on the packaging. If new ones show up after F.D.A. approval, they can be added later. As Ken Mackie, from Indiana University, told me, there’s no mechanism to do this in the vernacular movement, no central repository of interactions and side effects.
In 2014, Gruber started the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery, or MIND, program to examine the effects of medical cannabis, and so far, she has found exactly the opposite in people who use cannabis as medicine. Their cognitive function appears to improve over time and preliminary evidence suggests that, after initiation of medical-cannabis treatment, their brain activity begins to normalize. Although Gruber is not certain what accounts for the contrasting effects, she has several theories. Seeking a euphoric high, recreational users often gravitate toward products higher in THC. Medical patients, meanwhile, want to control symptoms and may thus seek whole-plant products that not only contain more CBD than what recreational users typically encounter but also other potentially healthful cannabinoids. Medical users tend to be older, too, and some evidence suggests that THC is less toxic to older brains than younger and may in some cases benefit older brains.
In early 2013, just a few weeks after Sam Vogelstein returned from Britain, Catherine Jacobson organized a brainstorming session at N.Y.U., which included Geoffrey Guy, epilepsy researchers and a consultant with a D.E.A. background, in order to figure out how to make F.D.A.-sanctioned trials happen. What followed the meeting surpassed Jacobson’s expectations. The F.D.A. first expanded the ability of doctors to prescribe CBD and then fast-tracked the approval process. The neurologists who ran the trials included Orrin Devinsky from N.Y.U., Elizabeth Thiele from Harvard and Eric Marsh from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.
Around the same time, Figi, Stanley and Heather Jackson, another mother whose epileptic son had benefited from CBD, founded a nonprofit called Realm of Caring. It helped families relocate to Colorado and offered them advice on how to negotiate the state’s medical- cannabis environment.
W hen Catherine Jacobson first heard about the promise of cannabis, she was at wits’ end. Her 3-year-old son, Ben, had suffered from epileptic seizures since he was 3 months old, a result of a brain malformation called polymicrogyria. Over the years, Jacobson and her husband, Aaron, have tried giving him at least 16 different drugs, but none provided lasting relief. They lived with the grim prognosis that their son — whose cognitive abilities never advanced beyond those of a 1-year-old — would likely continue to endure seizures until the cumulative brain injuries led to his death.
Cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years in Asia, where it was probably first domesticated before traveling to, among other places, Africa. It was almost certainly introduced multiple times to the Americas, first from Africa to South America through the slave trade — in Brazil it’s still known by an African name, diamba — but also to the Caribbean. Indian indentured laborers probably brought it to Jamaica, where it’s called by an ancient Indian name, ganja.
Still, many who have direct experience with CBD, including a few scientists, do not think it should be available only by prescription. They point out that long before the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which made marijuana illegal, people used the plant medicinally. Cannabis should not only take its place as an F.D.A.-approved drug, they contend. It should also reclaim its role as a folk remedy.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the lesser-known child of the cannabis sativa plant; its more famous sibling, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the active ingredient in pot that catapults users’ “high.” With roots in Central Asia, the plant is believed to have been first used medicinally — or for rituals — around 750 B.C., though there are other estimates too.
What are the claims?
But without clinical trials in humans, psychologists say CBD’s effect on depression is still a hypothesis, and not an evidence-based treatment.
Does CBD help sleep and depression?
Earlier research found fewer than a third of 84 products studied contained the amount of CBD on their labels. Some users of CBD have also failed drug tests when the product contained more THC than indicated.
“You are inundated with terrible news, and you have no choice to opt in or out,” said Verena von Pfetten, 35, the former digital director for Lucky magazine who is a founder of Gossamer, a high-style magazine targeted to cannabis-loving tastemakers. “You open your computer, check your phone, there are news alerts.”
“Most of the products where people are putting CBD in coffee or food, there’s no solid evidence that they contain enough CBD to do anything,” Dr. Blessing said. “A CBD coffee may only have five milligrams in it. In order to treat anxiety, we know you need around 300 milligrams.”
Cannabis for Non-Stoners
When added to dishes like sesame shrimp toast at PopCultivate, a series of cannabis-centric pop-up dinners in Los Angeles, CBD (which is flavorless) can function as a social lubricant, just like a wine pairing, but without, according to proponents, the hangover.
Cannabidiol is being touted as a magical elixir, a cure-all now available in bath bombs, dog treats and even pharmaceuticals. But maybe it’s just a fix for our anxious times.
‘The New Avocado Toast’
Skeptics who assume CBD is just 21st-century snake oil, however, may be surprised to learn that the substance is being studied as a potential treatment for maladies as diverse as schizophrenia, insomnia and cancer.