July 4, 2012— -- An Israeli company says it is growing medical marijuana with a special twist -- it offers some of the same therapeutic benefits without the high.
According to Reuters, the company, Tikun Olam, is cultivating a type of cannabis plant that has high levels of a substance called Cannabidiol (CBD) believed to have anti-inflammatory properties.
What the plants do not have is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound that gives many marijuana users the characteristic high.
Medical marijuana advocates tout the drug as an effective remedy for numerous symptoms, including pain and nausea. Studies have also found marijuana to be effective in relieving symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Zack Klein, Tikum Olan's director of development, said the company's THC-free marijuana offers symptom relief without the mind-altering effects.
"Sometimes the high is not always what they need. Sometimes it is an unwanted side effect. For some of the people it's not even pleasant," Klein told Reuters.
Experts in the U.S. say there has been very little research on how the specific compounds in marijuana affect people's health, so it is difficult to predict how well this type of marijuana will work.
"With just regular marijuana, there is a mix between THC -- the more neurologically active component -- and CBD," said Dr. Igor Grant, director of the University of California San Diego's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. "There is still ongoing research to try to understand the actions of THC and CBD and how they interact."
There is, however, ample evidence to suggest that CBD is not psychoactive, he added.
THC has a number of physiological effects. It binds to cannabinoid receptors throughout the body to produce its effects, including the high.
"There are receptors all over the place -- in the heart, lungs, belly, brain -- and they control all sorts of things," said Dr. Timothy Fong, associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
It is particularly powerful as an anti-nausea remedy and is available in synthetic form as a drug called Marinol. A combination of THC and CBD, known as Sativex, is available in some countries outside the U.S.
One very small study of 16 human volunteers that compared THC to CBD found that CBD had fewer negative side effects than THC.
Right now, federal law considers THC, CBD and entire marijuana plants to be illegal according to ProCon.org, an independent charity that provides information on a number of different issues. Marinol, the drug that contains synthetic THC, is legal.
The mass cultivation of a plant similar to the Israeli-grown cannabis could create complicated legal and political issues, according to Robert MacCoun, a psychologist and professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley.
While it remains to be seen whether or not CBD is effective against certain disease symptoms, many medical marijuana advocates believe it is the entire plant that provides therapeutic benefits.
"They have long argued that the substances in the plant collectively bring about the medical benefits," said MacCoun, who is not an attorney, but has done extensive research into policy issues surrounding medical marijuana.
If CBD turns out to also be therapeutic as THC, MacCoun explained it may change the legal and political dynamic, since the argument can be made that only certain ingredients should be legal.
Medical marijuana for research purposes must be obtained from the federal government, so it can be difficult to get, which MacCoun said limits the ability to study its effects.
And more research is exactly what experts who work with these compounds say is needed.
"This is an area that is very underdeveloped and underresearched," said Fong. "We need more ways to explore how the cannabinoid system works."