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Why CBD Isolate From Big Pharma Can Harm More Than Heal

Matt Weeks
cannabis, CBD, THC, cannabinoids, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, epidiolex, epilepsy, Big Pharma, pharmaceuticals, opioids

The first cannabis-derived, Cannabidiol (CBD) isolate from Big Pharma is already on the market, albeit expensive and with potential side effects.

Cannabis has shown amazing abilities to treat a wide range of illnesses, diseases, and syndromes. However, instead of straight cannabis or even just cannabidiol isolate, drug companies are pumping out products that tout cannabis as the “active ingredient” but are filled with many other ingredients as well.

While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there’s reason to be wary of “cannabis plus” products that dilute or diminish the natural healing properties of the plant with filler.

In June 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first cannabis-derived drug to treat epilepsy. Epidiolex is a liquid medicine made from the cannabidiol that is “purified” via a chemical process and combined with dehydrated alcohol, sesame seed oil, strawberry flavor, and sucralose. It’s a yellowish clear color and nearly odorless.

pill bottles and a cannabis bottle

Officially, the drug is suitable for treating only two conditions: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, both of which are forms of particularly unpleasant childhood epilepsy.

Epidiolex comes with a price tag of $1,235 per 100 ml bottle. That’s just under half a cup of liquid or about one-third of a can of Coke. For the average child, the cost for treatment will be $32,500 per year. That seems like a lot to pay for a product that’s mostly plant with some sugar and flavor added.

Why the high price? Well, that’s the American healthcare system at work. The drug was allowed on the market after passing five years of research that included three randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. R&D costs money, don’t you know? Not surprisingly, a drug made from CBD passed those tests with flying colors. What is surprising are the potential side effects.

How Can Cannabidiol Isolate Medicine Have These Side Effects?

Patients in the Epidiolex clinical trials reported experiencing side effects that included trouble sleeping, lethargy, minimal appetite, fatigue, rashes, insomnia, and infection. Compare that to plain CBD, the side effects of which (according to WebMD) could include dry mouth, low blood pressure, light headedness, and drowsiness. Factoring in the price, that’s a lot of difference.

mother and child who might be harmed with cannabidiol isolate form big pharma

To be fair, the side effects from Epidiolex are not severe. Most are mild to moderate, and not continuous or ongoing. Lab tests do not show significant abnormalities. But that’s what one might expect from a drug whose active ingredient is almost completely harmless. The real trouble is: why did drug makers add anything to CBD to begin with?

Part of the answer may have to do with what they take out.

How GW Pharma Makes Epidiolex

Epidiolex is the first drug with FDA approval to feature actual cannabis as a main ingredient. While other cannabis-based medicines beat it to market, they uniformly use synthetic cannabis or cannabinoids as their active ingredients. Epidiolex uses the real stuff.

Drugs need uniformity. Because of this, the growers cultivate the plants in Epidiolex under stringent conditions. These reduce potential mutations. They produce exact copies of the same cannabis plant. The specific strains used for the drug are also bred to be very high in CBD and contain only trace amounts of THC, which simplifies the extraction process later.

cannabidiol isolate chemical makeup

It’s not clear exactly how the producers remove Cannabidiol isolate from the cannabis plants for Epidiolex. Unfortunately, its a trade secret. However, there are several ways to remove CBD from cannabis plants, and many of them also strip out other potentially important medicinal parts of the plant.

The other stuff (terpenes, flavonoids, cannabinoids) present in cannabis contribute to the entourage effect, which could have something to do with the efficacy of CBD. Think of like this: the other molecules in cannabis that sit beside CBD may help it be more effective in the body. So far, it’s not entirely clear, although scientist have found some strong evidence that compounds in cannabis besides THC and CBD  have pharmacological action.

CBD Pharma is Not The CBD Isolate You’re Used to

This is the key difference between products that rely on CBD and “CBD isolate” — the raw, plant-only material. CBD isolate is pure CBD, without the natural additions found in the cannabis plant. Pharmaceutical products that list CBD as the active ingredient replace the natural additives, like terpenes, with chemical substitutions. Instead of providing natural medicinal properties, these change the look, texture, or shelf life of the product.

But in cutting out the natural benefits of cannabis, some drug makers make their products harmful. Bad side effects not only hurt consumers, but the medicinal cannabis industry as a whole. It’s time for drug companies to prioritize people over profit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making longer lasting, better tasting products from cannabis. However, decreased effectiveness, and more potential side effects, are a very high price.

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Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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