While the effectiveness of cannabis is well documented in treating some diseases or disorders, others are finding relief using the compound in absence of peer-reviewed medical literature.
While many applications for cannabis have already been discovered, scientists and patients alike are finding new and different ways that the plant is enriching lives.
Oklahoma has no qualifying conditions for its medical patients, which is why Dryden Groat moved here from Texas to legally experiment with medical cannabis. He also landed a job with The Highgrade Testing Lab, so the chemist by trade can also experiment outside his own personal experiences.
At six days old, Groat was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“When I was born and diagnosed, they pretty much told my parents, ‘Enjoy your time with him because he probably won’t live until he’s 16,’” Groat said. “Cystic fibrosis is a respiratory and digestive disease, and it affects about 30,000 people in the U.S. alone and about 70,000 to 80,000 worldwide. Our cells cannot transport sodium and potassium through the cell membrane, and so that means there is a smaller concentration of sodium in our bodies. When we sweat, we sweat out more salts and stuff like that, and then that is what causes the thick secretions of mucus in our lungs, because salt is actually a mucus thinner. It thins the mucus so we can cough it out properly, and so without the concentration of sodium in our bodies, our mucus is thicker, stickier, harder to get out of our bodies, and that’s the reason for breathing treatments. Pretty much just to give our lungs an irritant so that we can cough out the mucus before it gets infected and leads to scarring.”
Groat said he does breathing treatments every morning and night and also has to take medication before he eats.
“It’s my way of life, so I don’t really think of it as anything too extreme, but for people on the outside, they see I’m pretty regimented. I’m pretty good about doing my treatments and stuff just because I have to be if I want to keep living,” he said.
A friend with cystic fibrosis he had met through social media told him her doctor recommended she try a dry herb vaporizer. While she was living in Canada where cannabis was just legalized nationally, Groat was living in Texas where there is no medical cannabis program, so he had to go to the black market to see if it would also work for him.
“From the first time I inhaled the dry herb vapor, I knew it was something special. And so then I started researching,” Groat said. “It just piqued my interest that much because I just felt so much relief. Not just the lungs. Cystic fibrosis affects my digestion more than anything, so I wake up nauseated, and I just live in a constant state of nausea and decreased appetite leading to malnutrition, lower body mass index, all that bullshit. And so it helps with my lungs. It helps with my appetite for sure. Definitely helps with the nausea, and I’m able to eat more to maintain my weight better through using cannabis. And then my depression and anxiety stemmed from my cystic fibrosis as well, just having that feeling of your life has a due date, essentially, and this disease will eventually be the reason I die. So it’s pretty morbid, but cannabis takes away that anxiety that depression and it makes me breathe better and it makes me eat more, so it’s just like a cure-all.”
The vapor also helps agitate the mucus in his lungs in the same way the breathing treatments do.
“Every time I cough, it’s a productive cough, meaning I do cough out mucus and actually, my breathing treatments are just there if I need them pretty much because after vaping, it feels like I do a breathing treatment,” he said. “It just has the same effects, but through vaping, it’s natural. It’s a medicine. It’s just amazing how this one plant has, I wouldn’t say replaced, but pretty much does the same exact thing that 28 years of breathing treatments has done for me.”
Groat has found that certain terpenes benefit him more than the THC or CBD.
“I hate that Blue Dream is my favorite strain because it’s just so common and all that, but really and truly, Blue Dream has the pinene. It has the caryophyllene for the inflammation,” Groat said. “The pinene is the bronchodilator, and so that gets in there and opens my airways, and then if there’s any inflammation, I find that the caryophyllene goes in and kind of calms the inflammation. I don’t feel as heavy-chested due to the inflammation after I vape some caryophyllene, but it’s not just Blue Dream. There’s other strains that I’ve tried, and I kind of keep a little log book of what works for me and what doesn’t. Everybody in the lab kind of lets me know, like, ‘Hey, this strain has a lot of pinene,’ and I put it on my list, and then when I can get my hands on some, I try it and test it out. But I tend to stick with the pinene terpenes because I know that they work.”
While his doctors were not pleased when they found out what he was doing, the test results from August to November 2019 have helped convince them.
“My lung functions are that of a normal range. I’m very fortunate in my case of CF. Every case is different,” Groat said. “I have friends that have died waiting for transplants, and they were 22, and then I have some friends that are 55 and they’ve never had a transplant. So it’s really an individual case, which is why it’s so hard to treat. But with my specific case, my lung functions sit around 90 to 100 percent whereas most people my age are in the 40s and 50s range, and so that’s kind of why I was more experimental with cannabis, because I kind of have that room that if it didn’t work, I could still afford to lose some points on my lung function. But my last appointment, I went, and my previous appointment my lung functions were 93 percent, I believe, and then at that appointment, I blew again and my lung functions were 98 [percent]. It went up, which is really good, and I had done no changes to my lifestyle. I didn’t start working out. I didn’t start running. I didn’t start getting any better. It was just with the addition of cannabis.”
Phillip Nicholson has been medicating with CBD for a year and a half.
He has a rare form of cerebral palsy, called ataxic cerebral palsy, which affects the part of his brain called the basal ganglia that causes difficulty with balance, fine motor skills, short-term memory and occasional slurred speech.
The primary treatment courses for cerebral palsy are typically a combination of physical and occupational therapy and surgery, though muscle relaxants such as Baclofen or Valium can also help relieve symptoms.
Managing his symptoms is a daily battle for Nicholson, who works as a bartender. His job requires balance and coordination, both of which are affected by his ataxic cerebral palsy.
“I have people tell me all day every day, ‘It’s not your fault. Don’t worry; it’s not your fault,’” he said. “Yeah, I know it’s not my fault, but it doesn’t fuckin’ help the situation.”
Nicholson had his first experience with cannabis in his teenage years, though he did not consider its potential therapeutic effects until he was in college.
“When I was at university, we all smoked weed in the house I lived in. My housemates were well aware of my cerebral palsy, and they knew I kind of used weed to ease those symptoms as well, but they also knew I didn’t want to be stoned all the time. My old university housemate came home with a bottle of CBD, let me try some, and sure enough, I realized it was very helpful.”
There is not yet any conclusive evidence that CBD positively affects people with cerebral palsy. There are a variety of studies that examine the effects of cannabis on fine motor skills and spasticity-related multiple sclerosis, but to date, the only comprehensive study done specifically on people with cerebral palsy was done at Wolfson Medical Center near Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2017.
According to the Israeli news site Haaretz, the study found that in children with severe cerebral palsy, cannabis oil substantially improved motor function, sleep quality and general mood.
The report did not recommend using cannabis as the only treatment method, but instead using it to enhance the effects of physical therapy and other treatments. This study has not been replicated, making it hard for scientists to draw conclusions about the specific effects on these symptoms.
What is clear is that the basal ganglia — the part of Nicholson’s brain that was damaged — has an abundance of cannabinoid receptors, suggesting some level of connection.
“Sometimes it does more than other days, depending on how bad I am in my symptoms, in my tremors, in my balance. … When I take CBD, it makes me feel more uplifted mentally and more, kind of, awake cognitively,” Nicholson said. “So, when I feel more awake cognitively, I’m using CBD comboed with a good diet and exercise. It works perfectly. My tremors are so calm, I speak better, my memory is better — I’m just generally more switched on as a person; it even makes me walk better.”
He did not consult a doctor before he started using CBD because he was not required to.
Nicholson lives in the United Kingdom (UK), which officially legalized the sale of CBD for medical purposes in 2018.
The UK draws a clear distinction in terms of legality when it comes to THC.
The UK has what is called a “psychoactive substances ban,” which includes most forms of cannabis.
The plant cannabis had been classified as a Schedule I substance until November of last year, when it was moved to Schedule II. Compounds with more than 0.02 percent THC remain entirely illegal, though CBD itself was never scheduled.
Today in the United Kingdom, CBD is available through medically licensed distributors or private companies with no medical license.
Although CBD was never considered a psychoactive substance, it can still be difficult to find in stores.
“I have to go online and wait x amount of days to get CBD oils and stuff like that. A lot of the time, it is very overpriced for what you’re getting — we’re talking a 10 mL bottle for sometimes up to 60 pounds [73 dollars] — but I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve got a friend that runs a company in Bristol called CBD Genetics that does it for 30 quid [36 dollars], full-spectrum CBD.”
Full-spectrum CBD is an extract from the actual cannabis plant, meaning in addition to the CBD, there are other cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes present.
The two brands of medicinal CBD available are Dronabinol and nabilone. Both are synthetic CBD, or a chemical designed in a lab that mimics CBD’s effects without the full cannabinoid profile.
Officially, the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain recommends against using non-medicinal products due to the lack of quality assurance.
The NHS website also says, even after the legalization of CBD for medical purposes last year, “Possessing cannabis is illegal, whatever you’re using it for. That includes medical use unless it has been prescribed for you.”
General practitioners in Britain are not allowed to prescribe CBD. In order to get a prescription, you need to see a specialist, and even then, the chances of getting it are low. The only conditions treatable with CBD listed on the NHS website are rare forms of childhood epilepsy, spasticity from MS and vomiting from chemotherapy.
“Weed is still illegal in the U.K because of the psychoactive blanket ban. Now, debates are happening and rules might change within the next five or so years, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” Nicholson said.
In the meantime, Nicholson will continue to buy and use CBD without a prescription.
“CBD was my own conscious decision, and buying it regularly and using it every day — whether that’s in my cup of tea in the morning, under my tongue or in the vaporizer,” he said.