Can CBD Really Do All That?
How one molecule from the cannabis plant
came to be seen as a therapeutic cure-all.
When 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.
In early 2012, when Jacobson learned about cannabis at a conference organized by the Epilepsy Therapy Project, she felt a flicker of hope. The meeting, in downtown San Francisco, was unlike others she had attended, which were usually geared toward lab scientists and not directly focused on helping patients. This gathering aimed to get new treatments into patients’ hands as quickly as possible. Attendees weren’t just scientists and people from the pharmaceutical industry. They also included, on one day of the event, families of patients with epilepsy.
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.
The idea to try cannabis extract came to David after he found out that the federal government held a patent on cannabidiol, a molecule derived from the cannabis plant that is commonly referred to as CBD. Unlike the better-known marijuana molecule delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, CBD isn’t psychoactive; it doesn’t get users high. But in the late 1990s, scientists at the National Institutes of Health discovered that it could produce remarkable medicinal effects. In test tubes, the molecule shielded neurons from oxidative stress, a damaging process common in many neurological disorders, including epilepsy.
Jacobson had a Ph.D. in neuroscience. She had started her postdoctoral research at the University of California, San Francisco, by studying how cancer cells metastasize and spread, but after Ben was born, she moved to Stanford and switched her focus to epilepsy — a shift that compounded her anguish. She often wept in the parking lot before heading into the lab, overwhelmed by dread at the prospect of deliberately causing epilepsy in rodents. “I couldn’t watch animals seize all day and then watch Ben seize all night,” she told me. “It was just too much.”
Moises Velasquez-Manoff is a contributing Op-Ed writer for The Times. He last wrote for the magazine about tick-borne meat allergies.
Photograph above with products that have been advertised as containing CBD. Top row: Meringue cookies, Elite Hemp Products; lollipop, Nova Blis; golden milk powder, Supergood; marshmallow, The Marshmallowist. Second row: skin oil, Herbivore; gummy bears, Just CBD; dog biscuits, Medipets; popcorn, Diamond CBD. Third row: Rainbow gummy, Diamond CBD; mints, Tillmans Tranquils; suppositories, Foria; mascara, Milk Makeup. Fourth row: gumdrops, Lord Jones; chocolate, Grön CBD; gummy candies, Just CBD; bamboo extract, Meds Biotech; melatonin, Meds Biotech; gel capsule, Lord Jones.