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Minnesota's new untested miracle drug: What CBD can do for you (maybe)

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Getty Images

Sometimes Marlo Corletto’s job calls for her to sing the ABCs. Other times she has to try quieting a room full of hyped-up six- and seven-year olds. There’s always something going on, and the noise and constant stimulus amplify Corletto’s intense migraine headaches.

The St. Paul Public Schools teacher and mother of one has suffered from weekly migraines for more than a decade, and a drug cocktail of ibuprofen, Excedrin, and a doctor-prescribed medicine, Sumatriptan, didn’t help. Side effects from the prescription drug include drowsiness and dizziness, not to mention cardiac arrest and seizures.

“I was so worried about what it would do to my brain, squirting these chemicals in my nose,” Corletto says of Sumatriptan. “Sometimes taking it a second time would make [the migraines] go away, and sometimes it wouldn’t.”

Marlo Corletto says painful migraines “evaporated into thin air” after a few months of regular CBD use.

Marlo Corletto says painful migraines “evaporated into thin air” after a few months of regular CBD use. City Pages

Corletto has found a new treatment for her intense head pain, one she says has cured her symptoms without any health risks or side effects. None she’s aware of, anyway.

“I was a naysayer about CBD,” Corletto says, naming the hottest trending homeopathic treatment for pain, among dozens of other ailments. “I never even smoked marijuana, so I was skeptical.”

Two weeks after trying CBD, Corletto says, her migraines went from weekly to bi-weekly. Eventually she had only one a month. After a while they “evaporated into thin air.”

Corletto’s is one of many anecdotal success stories about CBD, which users credit as a cure for everything from cancer to acne. Many of these claims aren’t backed up by research or science, at least not yet, and the drug is considered almost entirely illegitimate in the eyes of federal and state regulators.

More and more users are diving into what’s essentially an unregulated market for an unknown substance, all while hemp farmers, manufacturers, and store owners are taking the sudden hype about this would-be wonder drug to the bank.

 

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is the second-most popular molecule derived from the cannabis plant, behind THC. The big difference between the two compounds: CBD doesn’t contain the psychoactive ingredient in THC that gets you high.

“Basically, you can think of CBD as THC light,” says Peter Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School instructor and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation board member. “CBD doesn’t do as much for treatment of pain, sleep disorders, or anxiety as THC,” Grinspoon says, “but it also doesn’t have the main side effect, which is intoxication.”

Ingestion of CBD is a user’s choice. You can eat it, smoke it, drop it on your tongue in liquid form, or apply it like a lotion. Some users even throw it into a bathtub as a bath bomb. The products can be found everywhere from smoke shops to local co-ops to Walmart.

With the 2018 Farm Bill, the federal government removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it’s no longer a banned substance. It also reaffirmed the authority the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has “to regulate products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds”—like drugs and dietary supplements.

The law defined hemp as cannabis with less than 0.3 percent of THC. Prior to that passage, both hemp and marijuana had been considered Schedule 1 drugs.

Minnesota came around to hemp almost as slowly as the feds, with a closely overseen industrial pilot program approved in 2015.

In its first year, the program had seven applicants and six growers. So far in 2019, there have been 310 applicants, 200 growers, and 110 processors, according to MDA data. The dramatic increase strongly correlates to the increasing popularity of CBD, according to Margaret Wiatrowski, a program director with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

More people are also interested in growing hemp, mostly for CBD, indoors, where the plant can blossom year-round. In the first two years of the hemp pilot project, there weren’t any indoor hemp operations. That changed last year, with a combined 50,000 square feet dedicated to it, according to MDA data. This year the figure will be a proposed 450,000 square feet.

About 75 percent of people applying for hemp licenses are focused on CBD, largely because of the money to be made in the budding industry. Farmers can make up to $90,000 per acre of CBD-focused hemp, Wiatrowski says.

Minnesota law considers anything that is intended to be used for the “diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” as a drug.

Store owners like Steven Brown, CEO of Nothing But Hemp (a CBD-focused Minnesota/Wisconsin chain), have a way around that. Simply put: Don’t tell a customer CBD cures anything, and don’t make any guarantees.

Brown, who uses CBD himself, sells eight core brands to his consumers, who he says are overwhelmingly 45 years old and up. Brown has a story about one sufferer of Parkinson’s who tried CBD and “came back with tears in his eyes, hugged us,” and told them about finally sleeping through the night.

That story might be true, but the patchwork quilt of regulations, each area grayer than the last, means CBD sits in the middle of a massive loophole—one entrepreneurs like Brown and consumers like his Parkinson’s customer are marching right through.

Minnesota Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Cody Wiberg says CBD is obviously being sold as a drug, even though no one’s overseeing it as such. “But at this point we aren’t doing anything. We literally don’t have the resources to enforce this.”

 

After serving 10 years in the United States Army as a counterintelligence agent, Stefan Egan returned home with a gunshot wound, brain injuries from IED explosions, and post-traumatic stress.

Doctors, both while he was deployed and back stateside, prescribed the Minneapolis resident opioids—roughly 6,500 doses in a two-year period, according to Egan. “It wasn’t hard to get them; doctors were willing to do anything to keep you in the fight.”

He says his squad was also given Adderall-like drugs to stay alert and Valium-like substances to come down after. Now he’s mostly using just one drug, CBD, and thinks soldiers could serve longer tours if that was an option.

In fall 2014, after returning from one final tour in Iraq, Egan had an emotional breakdown and attempted suicide by opioid overdose. He was later taken to a PTSD-specific rehab clinic where, he said, “They just kept pushing pills down my throat.”

Some CBD products available: skin cream, soap, bath bombs, hemp honey, and gummies.

Some CBD products available: skin cream, soap, bath bombs, hemp honey, and gummies. City Pages

Egan says he’d be dead by now if he hadn’t discovered CBD. Pharmaceuticals left him “in a state of hopelessness,” and utterly dependent on drugs “despite the side effects.”

Since June 2015, when Egan left the military and started experimenting with cannabinoids, he’s spent his life thinking about and working with hemp. He owns a 20-acre hemp farm in Frederick, Wisconsin and a processing facility in Eagan.

He had six brain lesions when he left the army, and now has only two; he credits this recovery to CBD, which he also thanks for the disappearance of his depression and anxiety.

“I finally get to be a husband and a friend again. I am living life,” he said. “It has enabled me to go outside, it has enabled me to go to the grocery store, it has enabled me to be a functioning member of society... I was at my wit’s end. There was nothing else left. [CBD] helped me live.”

 

Brown, the owner of Nothing But Hemp, says he’s aware of products on the market that contain metals, including lead. (Ingesting lead would, if anything, likely make a mental health sufferer’s symptoms worse.) Since 2015, the FDA has sent warning letters to nearly 50 companies that have been found misleading consumers about CBD products.

Despite these risks, Brown says CBD’s rapid rise in popularity can be set at the feet of the very regulators who aren’t paying attention to his industry. “Consumers are saying ‘FU’ to the FDA and DEA, and are saying, ‘You created this opioid epidemic, and there is a product here that is much safer than these other products you are giving us.’ So how is this illegal?”

Since the FDA has done clinical studies of two drugs containing CBD, companies can’t market CBD products as having health or therapeutic value. The lone FDA-approved drug, Epidiolex, is intended to treat seizures associated with two rare types of childhood epilepsy.

For its part, the federal government has left states in the dark on how to regulate hemp products. The department has planned “listening sessions” to get public input, but for now states are on their own. Despite the recent announcement that FDA Chairman Scott Gottlieb would be resigning, the FDA said there is no change in its plan to develop federal regulation pathways for CBD.

 

The absence of oversight is the biggest problem surrounding the sale and use of CBD, according to Grinspoon. There is far more knowledge about the benefits and risks of other drugs. The government knows more about processed cheese in the dairy aisle than it does about this purportedly miraculous and mind-mending substance.

“If I prescribe a blood pressure drug,” Grinspoon says, “you know you’re getting the correct dosage.” But that is not the case for CBD, he says.

Nothing But Hemp’s Brown says one dirty trick he’s seen companies pull is slapping an American label on foreign CBD products and marketing them as coming from an American company.

Brown has teamed up with hemp farmers, processors, and advocates to form the Minnesota Hemp Association. The group, now in its infancy, has an ambitious mission: tighten regulation, enforcement, and consumer protection, while also educating consumers, law enforcement, and lawmakers about CBD.

If everyone hawking CBD in the state had to get products third-party lab tested, he thinks a lot of products currently for sale would come off the shelf.

Brown said he also makes sure all his employees go through supplement compliance training, which he learned as a GNC employee, to circumvent the reality that CBD is not presently an FDA-approved drug or supplement. Instead of saying, “CBD can help your anxiety,” employees say, “Some people use CBD to help their anxiety.” He said he wants this type of training to be the industry standard.

Brown puts CBD above and beyond pills marketed on making people feel youthful, lose weight, or feel more manly. He says he’s heard too many success stories about CBD, and that, plus the minimal research already done, sets his supplement of choice apart from hucksters duping people looking for help.

He’s got at least one friend in a high place. State Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, broke her foot in 2016 and underwent three surgeries. She developed bone spurs (a painful condition known to sometimes sideline professional athletes) and painful stiffness in the foot. Doctors prescribed opioids for the pain, but she stopped using them after the first surgery because of how nauseated and dizzy they made her feel.

After months of pain and difficulty walking, Bigham, a former member of the Washington Board of Commissioners and one-time Minnesota House member, looked into CBD.

“If it would have gotten me high, I would not have tried it,” Bigham says. She began taking one dose of a CBD tincture before bed every night. Earlier this month, six weeks after starting the course, she celebrated her 40th birthday by snowshoeing and ice fishing in northern Minnesota. “I can even run again; it’s like I never even broke my foot,” she said. The CBD also helps with inflammation and pain from her arthritis.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

Minnesota Department of Agriculture

“I think this is another tool in the toolbox for people to deal with pain,” Bigham says. “It is non-addicting, comes from a natural plant, and it really has provided relief.”

Anything that’s getting people off opioids is a good thing, in Bigham’s eyes, and many people are already relying on CBD to deal with common ailments like pain, PTSD, and nervousness.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” she said. “It is widely consumed and has benefits. I wouldn’t say it is a cure-all, but I would say it is a supplement that helps with inflammation and anxiety.”

Bigham’s introduced multiple bills related to industrial hemp and CBD. She wants to remove any ambiguity about the legality of hemp and hemp-derived products. She blames the FDA for inaction.

“We need to get everyone on the same page,” Bigham says. “We need to make sure everyone understands that this is a legal product you can purchase for human consumption.”

Another bill she authored would legalize the sale of industrial hemp to medical marijuana farmers in Minnesota, and she’s planning a third, that would establish some state regulations around CBD, like requiring all CBD products sold in the state to be third-party tested to ensure quality and truth in labeling.

Despite the failure of recreational cannabis in the Senate this session, on CBD, Bigham is confident there’s interest among other lawmakers in “getting a safe product on the market.”

 

At present, CBD’s popularity comes almost entirely from word-of-mouth and personal testimonies rather than medical research.

As FDA leader Scott Gottlieb said at a recent policy conference: “While we consider [regulation] issues, it’s important to note that CBD isn’t risk-free. There are potential risks associated with its use.”

Because hemp was considered a Schedule 1 drug for so long, research on it has been suppressed, and nearly impossible.

George Weiblen is a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota and has been studying cannabis genetics since 2002. He says it’s “virtually impossible” to research cannabis and how it affects humans compared to any FDA-approved substance. “Everything we do is only possible through a DEA research registration. We are bound by lots of regulations and requirements.”

The bulk of approved research to date has focused on cannabis as a recreational drug and its potential harm, rather than the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids.

Typically, when a company is commercializing a medicine, both the therapeutic benefits and the risks and side effects are studied. But because hemp was a Schedule 1 drug, and cannabis still is, in the eyes of the law there is no benefit exceeding the risks it poses to public health and safety, Weiblen says.

There are more studies and more attention being paid to CBD and cannabis now than ever before, and cannabis is having a moment. “It’s going from having a status of being an illegal and socially irresponsible thing to something that’s suddenly gaining acceptance and interest,” Weiblen says.

But the popularity’s outpacing the regulatory side. “There was a time that you couldn’t trust that what was being sold as alcohol was actually alcohol. People were selling methanol; people were selling wood alcohol. You get poisoned, you get sick. And that is why the government regulates alcohol like it does tobacco and firearms. It’s a safety issue.”

In the case of CBD, Weiblen says it’s like other nutritional supplements: faddish. He compares it to the pet rock. He’s not sure how much longer CBD hype will last, but concedes he’s “pretty sure there will be some legitimate CBD therapy for the long term. But what that looks like and who it will help, I have no idea.”

Animal testing of CBD shows it may help alleviate conditions like insomnia and pain. “The research is going to go on,” Grinspoon says, “and we are going to have answers to its medical efficacy one way or another.”

For now, the onus to research CBD is on the consumers. Grinspoon’s advice: Ask the seller for lab tests showing the product is what it claims to be.

The two biggest misconceptions people have about CBD, according to Grinspoon, are that the product you buy is the product you are getting, and that it has “magical powers.”

“You can get good quality CBD. You just can’t be guaranteed to get good quality CBD,” Grinspoon says. “You just can’t go and assume that shot of CBD you get in your coffee or the CBD lollipop that you get at the local store is actually high quality.”

In regards to these so-called magical powers, Grinspoon said he’s frustrated at some of the marketing behind CBD products like makeup, which suggest, for example, that CBD-infused mascara can make eyelashes grow longer.

“It just seems ridiculous that people claim everything and anything for CBD,” Grinspoon says. “I guess it is a free country, but it just seems sort of predatory and misleading to claim benefits for CBD where there is absolutely no evidence.”

Attributing wild success stories to CBD trivializes it as a legitimate medicine, Grinspoon says. “People associate it with wellness, and it has a very good brand, so they make the step that it provides wellness in other realms of life.” He gets why, but the idea that the same substance helps with insomnia and longer eyelashes leaves him “a little mystified.”

CBD is just one of the hundreds of cannabinoids in cannabis being researched right now, Grinspoon says, and he’s hopeful we’ll someday have more answers about what they do, and what they don’t. “There is unlimited for the potential for this research.”

 

Tabitha Trebesch, 41, from Cambridge, is in a better mood now since switching to CBD to treat her fibromyalgia. The drug she took for her condition can cause side effects including shaking, depression, and unusual eye movements. The prescription drug wasn’t working for her, and she worried about getting addicted to opioids, as some of her friends have. She’s seen the depression and lethargy opioids bring on.

Now the mother of two takes CBD and nothing else, and says not only have her symptoms improved, she’s got more energy. A friend, Bobbi Irish, suffers from “tennis elbow,” and, after recommending CBD to Trebesch, decided to try it herself. After two years in pain, she reports it “was gone in seconds after I rubbed the oil on.”

Irish also found that CBD helps anxiety. She had some of that, by the way, when she first started using CBD, fearful friends would act like she was buying pot. Now that it’s more mainstream, she can use openly without judgment.
Forget judgment.

Marty Schmidt’s ready to be an evangelist. With gymnastics, 40 years of physical labor, and being hit by a semi-truck, Schmidt, 65, has put his body through a lot.

Since discovering CBD, his pain’s gone down dramatically. “It seems too good to be true,” says Schmidt. “I did a woodworking project the other week. I haven’t done woodworking in 10 years.”

The Forest Lake man takes two 25-milligram CBD gel capsules a day, and says anxiety, pain, and insomnia are manageable, giving him increased ability to focus. And he’s in a better mood.

“I haven’t said the F word in a month. And I used to say it a lot.”