Health & Science

“CBD Nation” Makes the Case for Medical Cannabis Research

By Dan Mitchell Aug 19, 2020
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Dan Mitchell is a veteran journalist based in Oakland, Calif. He has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribun...
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Dan Mitchell is a veteran journalist based in Oakland, Calif. He has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, National Public Radio, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, Leafly, and many other publications.
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Before she entered the third grade, Rylie Maedler of Delaware learned she had a tumor winding through her skull, the result of a rare disease called Aggressive Giant Cell Granuloma. It wasn’t cancerous, but it was growing, and threatened her life.

Her teeth were falling out and she was beset with pain and seizures. While doctors dealt with the problem, including an invasive surgery, her mother Janie researched alternative cures. She noticed that, amid all the snake-oil remedies online, there were many more-credible-seeming references to cannabis as a possible treatment for Rylie’s  disease.

The surgery was successful, but only to a point. The doctors couldn’t remove the entire tumor, and chances were that it would soon start to grow again. So Janie gave her daughter medical cannabis. “I was scared to death I was doing the wrong thing,” she says in the new documentary film CBD Nation. “I mean, you doubt yourself as a parent.” She no longer doubts herself. A healthy Rylie, her tumor shrunk and her symptoms relieved, is now an active medical-pot advocate at age 13.

CBD Nation is filled with such anecdotes, both heart-rending and hopeful. But it is also filled with science. The filmmaker,  David Jakubovic was skeptical going in. He didn’t take medical cannabis seriously. But spurred by an anonymous investor’s request, he started digging. Eventually, he went to CannaTech, an industry conference in Israel. “I was shocked,” he says. “This was not a weird stoner conference.”

It was the opposite of weird, and there weren’t very many “stoners” there. It was full of serious people doing serious business. There was nothing in the way of weed iconography — no tie-dye, no day-glo. Executives talked about the latest trends in manufacturing technology. Scientists discussed the latest health breakthroughs. They were the people Jakubovic, who has many years of experience editing and producing documentaries, wanted to meet.

The film makes a compelling case for CBD (and cannabis in general) as a remedy for certain ailments such as seizures, nausea, and pain. But it makes an even stronger case that far more research is needed into its beneficial effects on those maladies and others, even including cancer.

Such research has been stymied by cannabis’ federal illegality. Hemp was finally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, and an explosion of hemp-derived CBD products has resulted.

The CBD industry registered about $7.1 billion in sales last year, according to Grandview Research. Estimates of future growth vary widely, largely because there are so many uncertainties about which ailments it can and cannot help, but guesses at the top of the range show possible exponential growth over the next decade, well into the tens of billions. If research over the next few years strengthens the case for CBD, such estimates could prove to be accurate.

No ‘Balance’ Here

CBD Nation ticks off a bunch of instances, over decades, of government scientists concluding that cannabis has this or that the disease-relieving property, only for politicians to ultimately bury those conclusions. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine issued a report in 1982, Marijuana and Health, concluding that cannabis had “shown promise in the treatment of a variety of disorders, including glaucoma, asthma, and nausea.”

The report concluded with a plea for further research: Without more study, it warned, “we are not likely to improve our present slow progress in developing information about possible therapeutic uses of cannabis.” The report got some press at the time, but little attention from politicians. 

If the film is advocacy, it’s honest advocacy, which is relatively rare when it comes to health claims involving weed. It delineates pretty clearly between what is known and what remains to be discovered. And it explains CBD and how it works in the body as deftly as anything out there, partly through the use of informative, and charming, animation sequences.

“I think of it as a film about science that happens to be about cannabis,” Jakubovic says. The film features no dissenters. He says he heard them out, but found their arguments lacking. “I didn’t want to just insert someone to give ‘the other side,’” he said, the air-quotes coming loud and clear through the phone. “I’m not going to have some random person who doesn’t know shit, just in the name of balance.”

Early in his research, Jakubovic watched a TED Talk featuring Dr. Dedi Meiri, who runs a cannabis and cancer research lab at Technion University in Israel. Dr. Meiri studies whether cannabis, or the components of the cannabis plant such as cannabinoids like CBD and THC, can kill cancer cells. “It’s so easy to ignore the science that’s already out there,” Jakubovic says, “but there is a lot of it.”

Meiri’s research has shown that cannabis likely has some cancer-killing properties. But a lot of further study is needed to discover which kinds of cancer cells it can destroy, which components of the cannabis plant are the ones doing the killing, and which dosages are necessary. Even in the best-case scenario, it will be years before those questions are answered solidly enough to prescribe cannabis as a cancer treatment.

Sharing Stories

Jakubovic talked to hundreds of people in the cannabis world. Inevitably, they pointed him to Steve DeAngelo, a longtime cannabis advocate and entrepreneur who co-founded Oakland, Calif.-based dispensary chain Harborside. Jakubovic called DeAngelo “a beautiful machine of knowledge.”

DeAngelo set him up with several of the sources who appear in the film, including Jason David of Stockton, Calif., and his son Jayden. Jayden has Dravet Syndrome, a horrible malady that combines autism and seizures — in Jayden’s case, several seizures per day, some of them lasting 90 minutes. That was how Jayden spent the first four and a half years of his life.

In 2011, DeAngelo decided to help. He worked with Jason to find the right combination of cannabis products and Jayden’s seizures were greatly reduced. “I’ll take two to five bad days a month compared to never having a good day ever,” Jason says in the film.

In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Epidiolex, a CBD-derived pharmaceutical, as a treatment for Dravet and another severe pediatric seizure disorder.

Jakubovic says he had little trouble getting people to talk to him for the documentary. “The stigma of pot is starting to wear off,” he said, and people are more willing to talk about it in public. But also, “people just want to share their stories. They’re willing to talk about deeply painful things in front of a camera.”

The film steered mostly clear of a big issue confronting the haphazardly regulated CBD industry: the massive presence of snake-oil marketing and the spread of misinformation about what it can do. Jakubovic acknowledges the widespread chicanery, and agrees that it presents a major challenge. But he chose not to take on the problem. “I wanted to focus on the science,” he said. In some ways, CBD is a complete fad, obviously, but that’s just noise.”

Still, if some of the preliminary science shown in the film proves to be solid, CBD could turn out to be more effective, and a much bigger industry, than the hucksters and quacks could ever imagine.

CBD Nation will be available on August 25 via Amazon Video, iTunes, and video-on-demand on various cable systems.

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Dan Mitchell
Business columnist