The cure-all debate over the cannabis compound has distracted from the serious — and seriously odd — back story of how cannabidiol conquered the country.
A cannabis flower sample at Steep Hill lab in Berkeley, Calif.Kelsey McClellan for The New York Times
Long before CBD had become a trendy wellness elixir found in juice and moisturizer and ice cream and dog treats; before corporate chains like Walgreens and Sephora had decided to sell it; and way before Kim Kardashian West had thrown a CBD-themed baby shower, a ragtag crew of activists, doctors, writers and marijuana farmers met up on an early winter evening in 2011. They sat in a circle at a house in the hills a few hours north of San Francisco — where wine country becomes weed country — to discuss the therapeutic potential of CBD, and how to get people to take it seriously.
Several studies in rodents and in cell cultures had suggested that CBD, a nonintoxicating compound from the cannabis plant more formally known as cannabidiol, could protect the nervous system, modulate blood flow, slow the growth of cancer cells and provide relief from seizures, pain, anxiety and inflammation.
“We were talking about, ‘What can we do with this?’ ” recalled Samantha Miller, who hosted the event at her split-level house, wedged between redwoods and a creek below. A headstrong biochemist, she had been growing marijuana since the age of 14 and had just quit a six-figure job to start her own cannabis testing lab.
After two years of tracking down high-CBD pot plants and building momentum, the group began to devise ways to persuade more farmers to grow strains with CBD — which had largely been bred out of American pot since it doesn’t get you high. In addition to convincing marijuana dispensaries to widely carry CBD, they wanted to educate the public about its promising benefits.
As the group of ten or so brainstormed, a balloon of vaporized pot was passed in one direction and a bong in the other.
“There was a strong sense that this was really going to be something, if when people use these strains they have any kind of experience like the mice did in the laboratories,” said Martin Lee, a writer who at the time had been finishing a book about the social history of marijuana for Simon & Schuster.
Near him was Stacey Kerr, a physician with flowing silver hair who served as treasurer of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, as well as Wade Laughter, a soft-spoken man in glasses who had started cultivating pot for his glaucoma in the mid-90s. Mr. Laughter and Lawrence Ringo, an old-school hippie grower, were some of the first Americans to intentionally cultivate plants higher in CBD than in THC — the compound that does get you high. Both pledged to keep their strains available for other growers at cheap prices. (Mr. Ringo said he would sell his seeds for as little as $5.)
Finally, there was Fred Gardner, a writer who had recruited almost all of these people to the CBD cause. A Harvard-educated former antiwar activist, now 78, Mr. Gardner had been writing about CBD since the late 1990s for publications like Synapse, the U.C. San Francisco weekly. For years, he’d been determined to connect the nascent CBD research he heard about at symposiums abroad with the medical marijuana movement in California. And with this group, finally, it seemed to be coming together.
Ms. Miller spent the months after this meeting leading hundreds of CBD seminars for farmers; Dr. Kerr began informal patient surveys to track how CBD made people feel; and as he finished his book, Mr. Lee often traveled around with Mr. Laughter and Mr. Ringo’s high-CBD plants and seeds, spreading the gospel at pot shops across the West.
“I was aware that this was a pretty special moment,” Dr. Kerr told me, talking about the night at Ms. Miller’s. “That it was the beginning of something big, and we were there to see it.”
At the time of Samantha Miller’s summit in 2011, THC was the sole chemical “face” of the plant. Cannabis containing significant amounts of CBD was still rare. Police raids and federal prosecution of medical marijuana businesses were still common. And because CBD doesn’t get you high, it was easy to miss; hardly anyone outside of pharmaceutical companies and academia had heard of it.
In the nine years since that night in the woods, one of the group’s biggest goals has clearly been accomplished: People know about CBD.