Blog Post

What is CBD Marijuana and What's the Big Deal About it?

Dr. Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman, PhD MSW

Dear Doctors,

“Medical marijuana laws are popping up all over the country, however some of them only allow for strains high in CBD, for kids with seizures. I always thought of THC and marijuana. What’s all this CBD talk about?”

CBD Skeptic

Dear Skeptic,

Thank you for your question.

CBD stands for cannabidiol, and it is a compound which has shown remarkable benefits in children with severe epilepsy. However, CBD is just one of the estimated 66 cannabinoids which work in conjunction with over 400 additional compounds each and every time someone uses marijuana.

There indeed has been a significant amount of CBD legislation which has been enacted in the past year. In fact, 11 states currently have laws on the books which allow only for marijuana with a high CBD concentration as an option for medical marijuana patients.

What is important to understand about the marijuana plant is that each plant has a particular chemical profile, and the percentage of cannabinoids found this profile vary from plant to plant. Marijuana cultivators can increase or decrease the cannabinoid percentages in each plant through selective breeding.

In addition to cannabinoids, the chemical profile of the marijuana plant contains other compounds including terpenoids, amino acids, proteins, sugars, enzymes, fatty acids, esters, and flavinoids, just to name a few.  All of these compounds work together through a process called “entourage effect,” which is responsible for the therapeutic benefits of the marijuana plant.

First described in 1998 by Israeli scientists Shimon Ben-Shabat and Raphael Mechoulam, the basic idea  of the entourage effect is that the cannabinoids within the marijuana plant work together, or possess synergy, and affect the body in a mechanism similar to the body's own endocannabinoid system. This theory serves as the foundation for a relatively controversial idea within the pharmacology community, that in certain cases whole plant extractions serve as better therapeutic agents than individual chemical extractions.

Or to put it more plainly, the therapeutic effects of marijuana work better when the whole plant is used rather than when any of the compounds are used by themselves. 

In addition to helping maximize the benefits of the plant, the entourage effect plays a role in helping to minimize the side effects of various cannabinoids. The most fitting example of this is CBD’s ability to modulate the potentially negative side effects of THC.

Many cannabis users are familiar with the side effect of increased anxiety and paranoia sometimes associated with cannabis consumption. Thanks to the entourage effect, research has shown that CBD can be effective in minimizing the anxiety associated with THC, lowering users’ feelings of paranoia.   

Ultimately, these new CBD medical marijuana bills are an attempt to acknowledge the medical benefits of marijuana in states where the politics of marijuana is otherwise untenable. However, by highlighting the benefits of one particular cannabinoid over another, lawmakers are continuing to perpetuate stigmas associated with marijuana use and denying many people the benefits of whole plant medicine.


The Doctors

Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

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