The marijuana compound CBD, or cannabinol, is gaining popularity in the health food community due to its purported health benefits, without the proper levels usually associated with narcotic marijuana. But new research suggests that the main active ingredient in marijuana, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) – the one that gives consumers the same narcotic effect – may be more responsible for the plant’s therapeutic effects.
Researchers looked at data from over 3,000 people who have tried marijuana to relieve symptoms. All of these participants tracked marijuana use using an app on their smartphones.
The study found that higher THC levels were closely associated with symptom relief. In contrast, CBD levels were not associated with symptom relief.
“Despite the general consensus that only CBD has medical benefits, while THC just delivers the buzz, the results indicate that THC may be more important and powerful than CBD for therapeutic benefits,” study co-author Jacob Miguel Vigil. Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico (UNM), said in a statement.
The study was published Feb.25 in Scientific Reports. It was funded by the University of New Mexico Cannabis Medical Research Foundation, which receives donations from the public and the cannabis industry. Three of the study’s authors work for MoreBetter Ltd., which makes a tracking application for the cannabis they use in their study.
The researchers noted that there were several limitations – for example, the data were self-reported and the study lacked a control group that did not use cannabis. Users may also experience a placebo effect in which they expect certain foods (such as foods with higher THC content, which tend to cost more) to perform better and more efficiently.
However, this study is one of the first to study in real time which properties of marijuana are associated with the claimed benefits. Given the growing popularity of medical cannabis, researchers are calling for more research to better guide patients about the dosage, efficacy, and safety of marijuana-based medical products.
Since marijuana is still banned at the federal level in the US, real-time research on the effects of medical cannabis is limited.
In the new study, researchers used data from the Releaf app, which aims to help people track marijuana use and find out which types of marijuana are best for their symptoms. The app prompted users for information such as the marijuana strain and levels of both THC and CBD.
Participants reportedly took marijuana for a range of symptoms, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, stress, fatigue, and back pain. Participants reported the severity of their symptoms on a scale of 0 (no symptoms) to 10 (severe symptoms) before using marijuana and then again within 90 minutes after taking the drug.
On average, participants experienced a 3.5 point reduction in symptom severity on an 11-point scale.
Of all the reported characteristics of marijuana, THC levels were most strongly associated with reported symptom relief.
THC levels have also been associated with both negative side effects (such as “dry mouth” and “cloudy feeling”) and positive side effects (such as feeling “relaxed” and “peaceful”). CBD levels generally did not have the desired effect associated with symptom relief or other side effects.
The researchers noted that while CBD is listed on marijuana product labels, these labels and figures may be inaccurate – one study found that CBD may be overstated on product labels. If so, CBD may not have been associated with symptom relief because the dose was too low to have an effect.
It could also be that CBD has more subtle effects, and the 90-minute time frame used in the study was not long enough to capture these effects, the researchers said.
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The new study is “very interesting,” said Dr. Donald Abrams, an integrative oncologist at UC San Francisco’s Osher center for Integral Medicine who has studied marijuana and was not involved in the current study.
Aside from CBD research on epilepsy in children, Abrams noted that there is limited evidence of CBD being beneficial. “Everyone supports the idea that CBD is for health,” Abrams told Live Science. “I just think it’s a little out of proportion to the evidence.”
Abrams agreed with the authors about the difficulties of studying cannabis-based therapies, especially given the many products that are available on the market. But “using the app as they did it is a good approach for collecting significant amounts of data.”
He added that while “this kind of research does not provide conclusive evidence … it does give us room for further development, possibly a messy clinical trial,” which is considered the gold standard in medicine.