Tag Archives: Endocannabinoid system

Interview with Bluebird Director of Science Lex Pelger on CBD

Recently, I was able to call Lex Pelger, Director of Science for Bluebird Botanicals. We also hooked up digitally so I could send him some further questions via email. The company provides CBD (cannabidiol) products to consumers. The CBD extract allows for some of the benefits of marijuana but without the intoxicating high. Pelger is quite passionate about the use of CBD and the science behind it.

Lex Pelger on His Interest in CBD and the Science of It

Lex Pelger.

(Slight edits have been made to the following interview dialogue for clarity and accuracy.)

Me: As a Science Director at Bluebird Botanicals, what are a few of the most common tasks you’re faced with on a daily basis?

Lex: One of the main parts of my job is education. I teach our customer care team about what’s known about the cannabinoids and human health as well as talk to customers about what might work for them. I also go to conferences and working on research questions to make sure that we have the most accurate science available. I also do a good bit of writing articles, lecturing and answering questions from journalists about the cannabinoid world.

Me: In your experience, how have you seen CBD help people affected by the THC in ordinary cannabis?

Lex: For people who do not enjoy the psychoactivity of THC or who are very sensitive to even small amounts of it, full plant extract CBD can be a great way to harness the healing powers of the cannabis without getting any kind of high.

Me: What are the most notable benefits CBD can produce in people?

Lex: CBD supports health and wellness in people via the endocannabinoid system and its interactions with the neuronal, immune and hormonal systems of the body. In general, CBD can be seen as a balancing agent for the body.

Me: Bluebird offers CBD health products in a variety of forms, such as liquid extracts and capsules. To what varying ailments do these differently-applied products pertain? Is one compound better than the others in some circumstances?

Lex: The main difference in the ingestion method is the personal preference of the person and the amount of time until onset. For people with acute needs, there are vape pens to get the cannabinoids into your system within a few seconds. For effectiveness that lasts for most of the day, people like to take the oils orally. We’ll also soon have topicals and that’s a great way to get cannabinoids into the system through the skin.

Me: What was the educational process like to get into this field of science?

Lex: For me, I spent five years reading the peer-reviewed literature and traveling the continent interviewing experts and listening to cannabis users. That was the best education.

Me: Bluebird’s website displays a growing line of “pet products.” Could you explain a few of these how they can improve the lives of domesticated animals?

Lex: The cannabinoids tend to work on mammals in the same ways. Since anything with a spinal column has an endocannabinoid system, we like having pet products to help our animal friends feel better too.

Me: Have CBD products been tested a lot on animals?

Lex: A lot of CBD has been given to animals in this country and we certainly hear good stories about the results but the scientific literature is quite scant on the topic.

Me: How do the effects of low-THC hemp differ between humans and other mammals?

Lex: There does not seem to be much difference aside from the smaller weights that necessitate giving less to smaller animals.

Me: Could you go over the relationship between CBD and someone’s endocannabinoid system?

Lex: There’s two main known receptors in the endocannabinoid system: CB1 & CB2. It’s funny but CBD doesn’t activate either of those. But it does modulate how other molecules bind to those receptors and that’s why the presence of CBD can lessen the negative psychoactive effects from THC.

CBD is actually a very wide-ranging compound with at least 80 different targets at the biochemical level of the human body. That’s why it can do so many different things for different people. Molecularly, you might compare [it] to a Swiss Army knife.
Me: The endocannabinoid system has far-reaching effects in several areas of the human body, but which other system do you think relies most heavily on it?
Lex: It is especially tied up with the neuronal system, the immune system, and the hormonal system. However, since those are still some of the most mysterious areas of science, the complete picture of these interactions is not yet formed.

Pelger Talks on the Culture and Media Behind the CBD Business

Me: Obviously, our culture has produced many notions which throw a negative light on marijuana and items associated with it. How do you think this effect can be reversed?
Lex: Storytelling and education. People believe the stories of others and as more and more people share about what the cannabinoids have done for them, more people will have the courage to give them a try.
Me: You run the Greener Grass Podcast; so you’re already working to spread the facts about hemp and its medicinal uses. As the host, what have been some of the highlights of the podcast in your opinion?
Lex: I especially loved sitting down with Dr. Julie Holland. She’s a NYC psychiatrist who doesn’t hold back and she’s great about giving the nuts and the bolts about what works.

Me: You’re the author of two novels rooted in science (The Elephant Folio and The Queer Chapter) which cover a bit of marijuana’s past as well as the endocannabinoid system. What do you think your favorite element of these novels is?
Lex: I liked watching them come together. Of course, I have outlines when I start writing but the end product grows and transforms so much that you’re utterly surprised by how it turns out. In fact, I can still sit down and read them with enjoyment because I forget exactly what happens next.
Me: How many hemp-related graphic novels do you think you’ll end up writing? Do you think you would ever stop?
Lex: If I keep following my captain Herman Melville and use the structure of Moby Dick, I just have 133 more books left to write. Luckily, I have them all sketched out and outlined on my wall so now it’s just a matter of taking the next decade or two to fill them in.
Me: Lastly, where do you see laws regulating marijuana and CBD products going in the future?
Lex: I hope that the laws around cannabis will continue to liberalize while still keeping consumer safety at the forefront. But I’ve studied too much about the history of the War on Drugs to not think that a horrible backslide will occur that continues to use the War on Marijuana as a tool of racist oppression against ‘those people’ just as Nixon originally designed it.
ReefMad Splash.

Continued Reefer Madness, 80 years later

ReefMad Splash.

Image credits Joshua Livingston / Flickr.

In the life sciences field, craving for knowledge and passionate dreams of bettering the lives of those inflicted with disease fuel assiduous exploration. Research and discovery can even become profoundly spiritual when advancing scientific research. Viewed through the lens of a Judeo-Christian faith background, the process of drug discovery and development can become a unique way to participate in an ongoing creation story.

But new discoveries can prompt a more destructive impulse, too. An almost obsessive desire to keep knowledge from others, or to blind them with junk “science,” is too common among those who wish to twist public agendas. In 1937, for example, a paucity of knowledge about the cannabis plant led to oversimplifications at best, and at worst, outright falsehoods. Unfortunately, misinformation and deceit remain rampant in the cannabis industry, as we know it, today – despite significant changes in state regulatory frameworks and federal enforcement priorities related to cannabis, that open access to cannabis-derived therapeutics.

Ignorance fuelled cannabis prohibition 80 years ago, when President Roosevelt signed the “Marihuana Tax Act”, instituting a prohibitive federal tax on cannabis-related activities and leading, essentially, to the criminalization of activities related to possession, production, and sale of cannabis. It came on the heels of the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which showcased alleged negative consequences of “marihuana” use by high school students — including manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, and hallucinations. In testimony during legislative hearings on the Marihuana Tax Act, Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Anslinger famously testified: “This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured.”

The Devil's Weed.

His views defined the US’ take on “weed”. This poster for the 1949 film She Shoulda Said No! promotes the picture as “Exposing the Tragic Truth of the Marihuana Menace!”
Image via Hygienic Productions / Public Domain.

At the time, we might well have asked: to what “drug” was Anslinger referring? The cannabis plant itself? For, at the time, the structure of only one phytocannabinoid sourced from the cannabis plant had been elucidated: Cannabinol (CBN). The structures of more prominent compounds, such as Tetrahydrocannabinol, (THC, which ironically, is more highly psychoactive than CBN) and Cannabidiol (CBD), would not be elucidated until 25 years later. Was CBN deserving of the “monster Hyde” moniker used by Anslinger?

Given what we now know about the important role played by novel, whole plant medicine for patients who do not respond well to other pharmaceutical therapies, the answer is “no.” Plants bred to unlock the symphonic, therapeutic value of rare non-psychotropic cannabinoids, sesquiterpenes and monoterpenes, reflect dreams coming true for patients, and are nothing like the apocryphal nightmare Anslinger evoked.

In the 1930s, without the reliable analysis of cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles made possible today by mass spectrometry, the prohibitionist agenda was fueled by speculation and ignorance. This lack of knowledge paved the way for “Marihuana” [sic] to be specifically included in a list of identified “hallucinogenic substances” in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Considering what we know and are able to cultivate today, including, but not limited to, novel type II plants bred for targeted therapeutic value and reduced adverse effects, or Type III plants that are non-THC dominant, it is intellectually impossible to generically label “marihuana” [sic], which is defined as “all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L.” as a drug, per se, or as a hallucinogenic substance.

If it should not be called a drug, what should it be called?

Cannabis is best described as a phytochemical factory with biosynthetic routes to produce metabolites with significant and varied pharmacologic impact on the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). Many targets have been explored in recent years for modulation of ECS activity to address significant unmet therapeutic needs. The polypharmacological approaches made available for the diverse phytochemicals that can be found in cannabis dovetail nicely with the remarkably broad statement by NIH researchers that modulating endocannabinoid system activity “may have therapeutic potential in almost all diseases affecting humans.”

There are dramatic differences, however, between different types of cannabis “phytochemical factories.” These complex plants produce a wide range of distinct compounds: 540 chemical entities, of which more than 60 are cannabinoid compounds with diverse therapeutic properties and mechanisms of action – including some that counteract each other. For example: the varied pharmacologic properties of type I vs type III plants, type II plants with THC:CBD ratios of 1:2 vs 2:1, plants that are myrcene dominant vs beta caryophylene dominant, just to name a few, reject unequivocally, by their very existence, the notion that cannabis is a single, de facto drug.

Leafly poster.

A poster by Leafly to illustrate the sheer number of different cannabis strains out there.
Image credits torbakhopper / Flickr.

To give another example, the opium poppy plant (Papavar somniferum) has been used medicinally for over five millennia and produces different alkaloids with therapeutic uses, among them morphine and codeine. Mistakenly filling a prescription for one with the other would be a serious problem; they are not interchangeable. We don’t refer to the “medical opium poppy” when discussing treatments for pain – instead, we refer to the distinct compounds the plant produces. Cannabis is a phytochemical factory, not a drug, and without this framework, the ignorance of 1937 will continue, to the detriment of both patients and physicians.

We have learned a tremendous amount in the last two decades about the receptors and ligands that comprise the ECS and the role played by our bodies’ endogenous cannabinoids in facilitating inter-cellular communication. This has spawned development of new synthetic and semi-synthetic cannabinoids that target specific ECS functions, as well as sophisticated breeding programs that have yielded new plants producing various novel combinations and concentrations of phytocannabinoids.

All of this means a new, less deceitful and more informative vocabulary must be used when discussing herbal cannabis and crafting laws and regulations governing its production, distribution and use. But who should bear responsibility for changing the paradigm and discourse around cannabis and medicine? All of us – through our different roles in research, publication, commercialization, legislation, prescription, cultivation and responsible consumption of cannabinoid-based medical treatments targeting the ECS. Knowledge that is widely dispersed and understood by all players in the marketplace, from lawmakers, to regulators, to physicians and consumers, is the only way to prevent misinformation.

For example, sativa and indica are words without objective meaning and should be shelved in favor of data generated from validated assays used to measure cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles. The sooner the marketplace understands that the chemical profiles of cannabis plants are not correlated with leaf size or other aspects of plant morphology, the sooner all will gain a better appreciation for how far the cannabis currently available to us has come and how great its potential is.

In addition, public safety concerns related to cannabis should not be ignored or rejected as attempts to advance a prohibitionist agenda. Rather, these concerns should be addressed directly in user education and regulation drafting, by applying knowledge from research laboratories, clinician offices, and study centers around the globe.

Recognizing the potential harms of chronic, high-THC cannabis use is a critical first step that must be followed by acknowledging evidence that adverse effects may be mitigated with product selection decisions. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a UK-based organization focused on ending drug prohibition, has long highlighted the importance of safer THC:CBD ratios in recommendations for regulations, yet, this information is hardly propagated in the US. And, information about seeking alternative terpene profiles to mitigate undesirable sedative effects of certain cannabis products – something daytime school-going, or working, cannabis users will surely appreciate – should not be confined to the pages of scientific journals.

In the case of cannabis phytochemical factories and cannabinoids in general, knowledge means protection. Periodic review of the latest published and peer-reviewed research is the best, and perhaps only, way to avoid being duped by modern day reefer madness.


This op-ed was authored by Gary Hiller, President and COO of Phytecs.