The passage of “CBD only” cannabis legislation in Florida this week signals a new challenge to the national discourse around what, exactly, is cannabis and to what extent it can be integrated into social policy — in this case public health policy.  While efforts to educate the public on the limits to this approach by the Drug Policy Alliance here and by Project CBD’s Martin Lee here exist, I want to historically situate what I’ll call the contemporary “CBD shift” in national cannabis policy debates.

In the First Report of the National Commission of Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1972), the Nixon-appointed Commission made very clear that the primary challenge to addressing cannabis and social policy was cultural.  The emergence of “marihuana” as a social problem is founded not in science but in two divergent trajectories with respect to what it signifies.  The Commission noted that “… the drug has evolved in the late sixties and early seventies as a symbol of wider social conflicts and public issues” (6), especially the metastisization of inter-generational conflict in the 1960s:

“For youth, marijuana became a convenient symbol of disaffection with traditional society, an allure which supplemented its recreational attraction … For adult society, [a]ttending a general fear that the nation was witnessing its own disintegration was a desire to shore up our institutions and hold the line.  That line was easy to define where drugs, particularly marihuana, were concerned” (9).

Cannabis symbolized a powerful social conflict that had nothing to do with public health and everything to do with the social issues championed by the country’s youth: Civil Rights, Free Speech, the Vietnam War, and iterations of movements for improving the lot of marginalized peoples in this country.

Disparate Perceptions — Beneficial But Still Feared

How did we get from this foundational “misunderstanding” to the point where one (still federally illegal) compound in the plant is a symbol, on the one hand, of the nation’s progressive acceptance of cannabis as medicine and on the other of Florida policymakers’ ongoing fear of the rest of the plant?

I propose we think about the foundations of cannabis prohibition as having been challenged and shored up over time in a succession of new “signals” around which the old misunderstandings get bound up in new ones.  This process is embodied in the determination of individuals and groups to re-politicize cannabis prohibition, but for often very different reasons.

The long struggle for medical cannabis, perhaps most clearly embodied by the life and times of Dennis Peron, opened up new legal landscapes from which new “symbols” of cannabis became recognized. Medical cannabis owes its social legitimacy to the suffering and struggle of HIV/AIDS patients at the end of the 1980s, which according to this Pew Research report coincided with the lowest national opinion of marijuana legalization.


Cannabis was a symbol of what was then a much more controversial national issue: GLBTQ rights, especially the right to health.  This was both a positive symbol, in the sense that cannabis became identified as a symbol of health, and a negative symbol, in which an extremely stigmatized population was associated with its use.  When applications to the Federal medical marijuana program soared with HIV/AIDS patients, the Federal program stopped admitting new patients.

History will remember this as a genocidal — even criminal — public policy decision, but with the federal program closed medical marijuana went grassroots and in 1996 California passed the first medical marijuana law.

Since then, as HIV/AIDS treatments improved and other patients with conditions that had been acceptable for the federal program when it was still open made use of California policy, socially acceptable “symbols” of marijuana as medicine proliferated.  HIV/AIDS patients created a “wedge” symbol for cannabis as medicine, and both legal and informal medical cannabis research has exploded.

Where CBD Comes In

The discovery of high-CBD cannabis as a particular version of cannabis as medicine is a social problem in that it threatens to exclude from the cannabis policy debate the fact that THC and all the other compounds in cannabis are:

  1. THC and all the other compounds in cannabis are also medically therapeutic and
  2. Together they form whole plant herbal medicine, whose therapeutic benefits derive from an “entourage effect” because they regulate each other in the body.

The reason for CBD-only popularity is clearly less the result of science and research — still throttled by the DEA — and more the effect of Sanjay Gupta’s investigative piece on the effect of a high CBD strain on a child with epilepsy.

Why CBD-Only Legislation is Too Limiting

That study profoundly disrupted dominant policy narratives of “protecting the children” from cannabis, but has been interpreted by politicians with zero scientific knowledge as offering a way to continue to prohibit the plant while promoting a single compound as good health policy.  In fact, GW Pharmaceutical testing has found the 1:1 THC:CBD ratio to have the most broad therapeutic application.

CBD-only legislation represents yet another “symbol of misunderstanding” that effectively denies the right to health associated with whole plant herbal medicine.  It’s a way to try to close off access to palliative and therapeutic cannabis-based medicine, and it will be laughed at in the not too-distant future as a silly misunderstanding.

But make no mistake: every person who could have been helped by cannabis as herbal medicine has conditions that are no laughing matter.


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