This article is part of "Safe Sesh", a VICE harm reduction campaign produced in collaboration with The Loop and the Royal Society for Public Health. Read more from the editorial series here.
Like most people who are fond of smoking weed, my knowledge of the topic has increased significantly since the days when I'd sit on a park bench with a tenner's worth of squidgy. For instance, these days I'm aware that different strains can produce vastly different experiences; from finding a nature documentary mildly more interesting, to eating six packets of Space Raiders, getting lost on a YouTube trail and ending up with targeted ads for "conspiracy T-shirts".
Over the years, I've also learned that cannabis is a complex plant with hundreds of chemical entities. The two best known are THC and CBD: THC gets you high, CBD is the compound that's been found to help in the treatment of a dizzying number of illnesses and conditions. Interestingly, given weed's reputation as psychosis-inducing, some studies have indicated that CBD can act as an antipsychotic – although more research needs to be done in this field.
So: it's probably better to get a strain that contains a decent amount of CBD, right? Right. However, because I can't be bothered to grow my own or work out how to use Tor, BitCoin or the dark web drug markets, I pretty much get what I'm given – and what I'm given is whatever my dealer decides to give me. So am I putting my mental health at risk?
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Jade is a member of Hempen, a not-for-profit organic hemp co-operative, based on a hemp farm in South Oxfordshire. They grow hemp, produce CBD products and food, and tour festivals extolling the virtues of using CBD. They think it's a good idea to supplement your diet with as much CBD as possible.
"We extract CBD from our hemp flowers," she says. "It's a really good painkiller, anti-inflammatory and it's not psychoactive, but it is antipsychotic." The co-op was at Boomtown this summer "doing hemp workshops, spreading knowledge of CBD and serving our CBD products".
Jade believes that taking CBD at a festival can be important. "Being an anti-psychotic, CBD is perfect for a festival," she insists. "Because if people are partying a lot it can do wonders with recovery. It's good for anxiety, so if you're getting a bit anxious after smoking a lot of high grade or partying for days, taking CBD can be helpful."
If I'm smoking weed generally, should I also be taking CBD? "It's probably a good idea," Jade suggests. "Any of the possible side-effects of the high-THC strains that are manmade – memory problems, paranoia and stuff like that – can be mitigated by CBD. But the strains available have been bred to have more THC, because that is more commercial."
It's a school of thought that has become more popular recently, and one unsurprisingly endorsed by a co-operative that produces CBD products. But does it tally up with the science? Before deciding to vape CBD day and night, I call Chandni Hindocha, a researcher at the University College London. She is currently investigating the potential application of CBD to treat nicotine addiction and has conducted "a lot of research investigating the interaction between THC and CBD".
Chandni agrees with Jade, that taking CBD with THC could be a good idea. "We know that pre-treatment with CBD in studies where participants have taken THC intravenously has protected against the effects of THC," she says. "But the best thing for users to do is have a cannabis with more balanced CBD / THC ratio, instead of using skunk. Unfortunately, street cannabis at the moment is all high-potency, and all the research suggests that it's worse for your mental health. In parts of the US, for instance, where we are seeing regulated markets, people can go in and buy strains that have an equal ratio."
Chandni is quick to point out the importance of getting in the correct dose of CBD when it comes to unlocking its therapeutic potential. I ask about the current nicotine withdrawal study. "We are giving participants 800mg in a capsule," she explains. "You have to consider that 800mg is a lot; in some of these CBD oils you are getting around 2mg."
What would the prospective benefits of taking CBD, if you've got a weed habit, look like? "Taking CBD as a pre-treatment – so taking it before you smoke skunk, for instance – can protect against some of the negative effects, such as increased paranoia or anxiety, without interfering with the stoned effect."
"In Colorado, there are people whose job involves going to conferences and completing quality assurance tests on cannabis. They all take CBD supplements beforehand in order to maintain good mental health. That's an industry standard practice there."
Dr Henry Fisher, Policy Director at drug policy think-tank VolteFace, is of the same school of thought as Jade and Chandni, but he's also keen to point out the limitations.
"Taking CBD with THC is certainly not going to do any harm," he says. "But there is no clear guidance on how much should be used, and there's very little regulation on what you are consuming. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that consuming CBD alongside THC can reduce some of the anxiety and paranoia that some people experience. At the moment, almost all the cannabis you can buy in the UK is high-THC and low-CBD. Unless you have a bit of money and a bit of knowledge to seek out specific strains, that's what you are going to get."
Henry cites emerging cannabis markets operating in a legal space as a reasonable indication of best practice. "In Colorado, there are people whose job involves going to conferences and completing quality assurance tests on cannabis," he points out. "They all take CBD supplements beforehand in order to maintain good mental health. That's an industry standard practice there."
So it seems that taking CBD products alongside THC is most likely going to be good for your mental health. But, at the same time, while the benefits of CBD are being researched and gradually becoming better understood, it could be tricky to get it right. Trying to find an elusive 1:1 strain is still the preferable option – but in the UK, where prohibition means most of us are forced to take what we get, that's a little tricky, too.
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