Form of medical marijuana won't get you high, but it's creating a buzz

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

WILLITS, CALIF. -- The one-armed man loitered in the waiting room for much of the morning, flipping through magazines with impressive dexterity, quietly waiting for word that the doctor would see him. Now.

William Courtney, MD, offered the chair to the right of the desk, the one occupied during regular office hours by a steady stream of patients seeking a doctor's recommendation for marijuana. In California, such a recommendation means an adult may grow, buy and smoke marijuana, all while remaining safely within the confines of state law.

The singular peculiarity of Courtney's "pot doc" practice here in Northern California is what he recommends: Don't smoke the stuff, he tells patients. Eat it.

Marijuana, he avers to every person who appears before him, turns out to be brimming with healing compounds. It won't get you high eaten raw, but juiced with a handful of carrots to cut the bitter taste, its leaves and buds may well have restored the health of his girlfriend, who had been given a diagnosis of lupus and a butcher's bill of other disorders that lab tests show have subsided. A local sufferer of Crohn's disease credits the plant with helping reverse the debilitating intestinal disorder. And published research from accredited laboratories suggests promise in preventing diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's, cancers and assorted maladies arising from chronic inflammation.

Yet almost no one knows any of this beyond a handful of scientists, including two at the National Institutes of Health who were sufficiently impressed that they joined a Nobel laureate in patenting a cannabis molecule. Courtney hands a copy of their U.S. Patent 6630507 to occupants of the chair, typically midway through a jargon-rich spiel that sometimes hits the patient right in the wheelhouse and sometimes goes whizzing overhead.

"I have no idea what he's talking about," said the auto mechanic who was in the chair a few minutes earlier, seeking relief for a broken vertebra and a bum knee. "Every once in a while he says something comprehensible."

But now, with no appointment and no right arm, someone was way ahead of him. "The last time we talked you said you had a source for the high-CBD material down by San Diego," the one-armed man began. He was dressed like a workingman but used the chemists' shorthand for cannabidiol, the most promising healing molecule, yet in most of the marijuana bought and sold these days, also the most elusive. CBD tends to show up least in plant strains that are richest in THC, the molecule that produces marijuana's high.

Courtney listened to the man, attentive yet guarded, the standard posture of a licensed medical practitioner operating on the far edge of the frontier where law, medicine and cannabis meet. It is a place in which he is used to being pretty much alone, and after a few minutes, Courtney sat upright and looked his patient in the eye.

"Are you wearing a wire?" the doctor asked.

'The basis of health'

Five years ago, while still a regular physician, Courtney was as spooked as most doctors about pot. Then he came across an article in the December 2004 issue of Scientific American. It changed his life. The article highlighted a molecule in cannabis that could do something he had never seen before: send signals not only into a nerve cell, but also back out again.

The finding reversed 20 years of his understanding of how neurotransmitters work. One-way traffic was the basis for inflammation: Immune cells receive endless messages to get cracking, none to calm down. Continuous attacking can inflame otherwise healthy tissue. Two-way communication makes possible a feedback loop, encouraging a modulation, the promise of which swept over the Michigan-born microbiology major with the force of religion. "My God," he said. "It's the basis of health."

Courtney keeps a framed graphic from the article on his desk. It stands beside copies of "Non-psychotropic plant cannabinoids: new therapeutic opportunities from an ancient herb," from Trends in Pharmacological Sciences -- and of course U.S. patent 6630507.


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