Project CBD founder Martin Lee

A Conversation about Cannabidiol with Project CBD Founder

Martin Lee is uniquely qualified to talk about CBD. He’s been writing about cannabis since the 90s when the marijuana landscape was more volatile and violent. He saw California cops beat on patients in wheelchairs for possession of legal medical cannabis after the passing of Prop 215 in 1996. The injustice inspired him to explore the cultural phenomena through journalism.

As a reporter, Lee founded the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) media watchdog group. He’s the author of multiple cannabis books including Smoke Signals and Reader’s Digest’s The Essential Guide to CBD. In 2009, he launched Project CBD as a resource into this new and exciting cannabinoid. Lee was quick to realize that unlike medicinal marijuana, CBD had the potential shift negative cultural attitudes towards cannabis and re-brand the plant in a positive light.

Combining his reporting background and cannabis activism, Project CBD became the go-to reference for anyone looking for legitimate CBD news and science. A resource like Project CBD is necessary because the cannabis conversation is exaggerated in both directions, simultaneously a boogeyman as taboo as meth, and a panacea ready to cure the world of its many afflictions. We reached out to Lee to have a realistic discussion around cannabidiol and touched on everything from CBD hype to the biggest threat to the cannabis movement today.

hemp plants
Cutting through the hype

Let CBD Speak for Itself

It turns out it’s not difficult to negotiate his position as a cannabis activist who, at times, criticizes the industry he’s promoting. “A lot is going on in terms of medical benefits with CBD in particular and one doesn’t have to exaggerate,” Lee says. “One needs to learn how to use it, to optimize it.” 

CBD has become a version of the 2010 tagline, “There’s an app for that.” Inflammation? There’s CBD for that. Anxious? There’s CBD for that. Arthritis? Works for that, too. Because of CBD’s potential broad range of use, it can strike people like snake oil, Lee says. “There is actually a scientific basis for understanding how CBD potentially, with an emphasis on potentially, will be an advancement in many different diseases,” he says. 

That scientific basis Lee is referring to is the endocannabinoid system, a biological network that reacts to the body’s naturally produced endocannabinoids. It also interacts with phytocannabinoids from plants, most notably CBD and THC in cannabis. The endocannabinoid system, though not clearly understood, is the reason for CBD’s multitude of uses. 

Animals have endocannabinoid systems, too, and animal CBD studies have shown optimistic results. But Lee mentions a large gap exists between what the scientific community knows through animal studies and how CBD works in humans. “Everybody is in the process of learning,” he says. “However, there are a lot of real testimonials of people having profound experiences with CBD.” 

The holistic nature of CBD goes beyond how it interacts with the body. Lee says one of the main points of the Reader’s Digest CBD guide is to show that cannabidiol is best used to support an overall healthy lifestyle.  “A lot of people are not using it for dramatic medical conditions—they are choosing to use it as a sort of health regimen,” he says. 

Western medicine’s approach to treatment is in opposition to a holistic one. We are used to one drug for one ailment. Look at any cancer patient’s medicine cabinet and find a cascade of pharmaceuticals to treat symptoms caused by other medications. CBD fits in with the holistic approach of addressing the underlying cause, rather than symptoms. It encourages a different relationship towards health and moves away from an over-reliance on doctors and drugs.

The pharmaceuticalization of cannabis

CBD Isolate vs. Whole Plant Extracts

Cannabis in a petri dishIronically, it was a pharmaceutical drug that helped legitimize CBD. It’s well known in the cannabis business that Epidiolex, an FDA-approved CBD pharmaceutical for childhood epilepsy, pushed medical and recreational marijuana legalization over the edge and helped legalize hemp agriculture.

While Epidiolex may have been great for legalization efforts, Lee criticizes its effectiveness because pharmaceuticals are made with isolated compounds. “There is nothing better about a CBD (isolate) pharmaceutical compared to the essential oil of these plants,” he says. “In fact, you can make an argument that the essential oil is better as a way of treating people, and there is good science behind that.” Lee’s referring to the entourage effect, the sexy term that describes how the hundreds of compounds found in full spectrum CBD extracts work better together than independently.

The entire approach to pharmaceutical cannabis is a Catch 22—it validated CBD and THC for many people, but Big Pharma is not interested in whole plant extracts. 

“The problem is the regulatory apparatus favors isolate because that is more in keeping with the pharmaceutical approach,” Lee says. The reason drug makers prefer orphan compounds is because it is easier to measure their results compared to hundreds of compounds, and therefore, hundreds of factors from a whole plant extract. Plus, the FDA only recognizes CBD isolate as federally legal, so there’s that. Lee says it’s not a matter of debating whether isolates or whole plant extracts are better because each has its benefits. The issue is isolates are privileged in the pharmaceutical community when they shouldn’t be. 

“The only way cannabis is going to become a [sweeping] medical reality is if these compounds are isolated—minor cannabinoids created in a lab—and marketed as a medicine,” he says. “There is a big push for pharmaceuticalization of the plant, but you lose something when you do that as well.”

A balancing act

The Best CBD to THC Ratio

It’s known that the best medicinal recipe is a combination of THC and CBD with other plant compounds. But there is a balancing act at play between psycho-activity, how much will get you high, and what brings the most therapeutic value. Lee says a one-to-one ratio could be a good starting point, but these plants are intoxicating marijuana plants. People with chronic pain may not want to be chronically high. (However, the quality of the high from 1 to 1 plants is much different than what’s available in the marketplace with macho bro 30-percent THC strains.) Lee says there is no perfect ratio of THC to CBD that finds the optimum therapeutic value without the psychoactive effects. 

“Experiencing euphoria or dysphoria isn’t the plant itself, it’s how the plant interacts with the person,” Lee says. “Different people metabolize cannabinoids differently… For some people, even just the tiniest amount of THC they find very uncomfortable.”

A profound juncture

The Cannabis Movement Today

There is still a long way to go towards legalization, but the dominoes are falling: Hemp agriculture is legal; more and more people understand the medicinal value of cannabis;  states continue to legalize recreational marijuana, and federal legalization is in sight. The “threat” to cannabis activism in 2021 is more of a collision of quandaries compared to prohibitionists and fear-mongers of the past. 

Photo by John Lohne

“We’re at such a profound juncture coming out of this Covid thing, the climate crisis, the crisis around racism and inequality,” Lee says. “Cannabis is implicated in all these crises in a very interesting way.” 

With climate change, for instance, greenhouse gas emissions caused by indoor grow facilities are a sobering reality. But there are also many people within the industry working to counteract emissions. Lee uses the example of a few farmers in California who are dry farming cannabis—not using any water!—which is nothing short of remarkable. It’s exciting innovation like this that keeps the Project CBD staff busy.

“There is so much going on, it is almost an embarrassment of riches to choose different things to focus on for us writers,” Lee says. He can’t choose what part of CBD research excites him the most, but recently he’s been interested in THC/CBD stem cell research, and communication between the ECS and gut-brian connection

“We’ve been focusing on CBD for over 10 years. In some ways we have done our job. We are looking to broaden out a little bit [to other parts of the plant],” he says “It’s ironic, at the very beginning we were telling the medical community, ‘You know, THC is not the only game in town.’ These days we are telling people, ‘CBD is pretty cool, but it’s not the only game in town.’”

Like much of the industry, Lee’s curiosity is pulled toward other minor cannabinoids such as CBN, CBC, CBG, terpenes and other compounds that we’re just starting to understand. With cannabis’s reverberation through the cultural landscape and medical community, there is no guessing where this controversial and pivotal plant will end up next. 

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