The mom from New Jersey was desperate. Desperate enough to try anything to help her son overcome Lyme disease, and vulnerable enough to buy a $125 jar of sludge over the internet.
Conventional medicine having failed her, she'd heard of an alternative cure: cannabis oil, a distillation of marijuana plants into a viscous potion with purported healing properties. But living on the East Coast, in a state where medical marijuana is legal but so strictly regulated that pot clubs have yet to appear, there was no way to get her hands on the essence of a banned plant aside from uprooting her life and moving west.
The "sludge," shipped from Colorado, promised to be the next best thing because it contains "CBD," or cannabidiol, which — according to information spread by CNN's Sanjay Gupta and a growing chorus of American lawmakers and media outlets — is the ingredient in marijuana that promotes healing.
Except the "cannabis paste," sold under the brand name "New Cure," isn't exactly marijuana. If it was, it would be illegal to ship. But if it was marijuana, the paste might also have had a shot at helping the sick kid.
Jon Marsh, an uprooted West Coaster and military veteran living in Boston who says he dealt with his Gulf War Syndrome thanks to marijuana, tells this story as a public service. He's out of the marijuana game entirely — "I'm not growing, I'm not selling, I'm not consulting," he says — aside from the eight hours a day he spends in front of a computer screen, touting the promise of cannabis oil.
On Marsh's Facebook page, "Cannabis Oil Success Stories," hundreds of people — with Lyme, epilepsy, cancer, and chronic pain — praise the healing power of cannabis when distilled into oil (the oil, and its supposed healing powers — still unverified by science — was the subject of an SF Weekly cover story last year).
Cannabis oil is deceptively simple to prepare: All you need is a pot, a bucket, and a solvent with which to separate the plant material from the psychoactive and alleged healing compounds.
But nothing is ever simple or easy in the marijuana world. Marsh is loathed by adherents of Canadian cannabis oil pioneer Rick Simpson, whose method of making "RSO oil" requires naphthalene (a toxic chemical that Marsh can't abide).
Marsh is also being targeted by the makers of "New Cure" and other products whose sellers swear are high in CBD, at least one of whom is trying to pressure Facebook to remove the success stories page. That's because Marsh is also using the platform to warn the hopeful and desperate about the prevalence of falsely advertised products, which, like the hustle that deceived the Jersey mom, relies on a combination of naivety, hucksterism, and federal drug laws.
Awareness of CBD is growing: A crew called "Realm of Caring" in Colorado has a proprietary high-CBD strain of cannabis, and is making its way around the United States pushing CBD-only "medical marijuana" laws. But sophisticated understanding of how it works — in concert with THC and the other myriad components of the pot plant, something Gupta called "the entourage effect" in his CNN special, "Weed" — is lacking.
Marijuana sold on the street has little CBD; marijuana sold in dispensaries has more. Either way it's federally illegal thanks to the THC content. But there's some CBD in hemp, which grows wild in the U.S. and is legal to import from Canada and China. Therefore, unscrupulous types are able to claim their jar of sludge has the all-important healing ingredient in it when they market hemp "paste."
This is how all the "legal cure" products get out there, with their less-than-straightforward promises. One, HempMeds, is a bit better than "New Cure" — or at least it's more honest about its bogus product.
Visitors to HempMeds' Web site, where tubes of "CBD-rich hemp oil" are on sale for $3,000 for a package of six, are greeted with a pop-up from a doctor who assures the needy that all medical claims made therein are accurate. Therein lies the rub: There are no medical claims, just plenty of mentions of the magic acronym CBD. HempMeds' FAQ states clearly that "Real Scientific Hemp Oil" (or "RSHO") is not medical cannabis, but hemp, with no THC and only some CBD.
That means it's legal, and possibly similar to Realm of Caring's proprietary strain. (UCSF researchers are also testing a similar, CBD-only pharmaceutical drug on children with severe epilepsy.) But if your ailment is cancer, CBD isn't going to be enough: a Spanish researcher found THC shrunk tumors in rats.
And either way, "possibly" isn't good enough for sick people.
Weed industry insiders have known about the CBD con game for a long time. "The atmosphere around marijuana in America right now is a perfect storm for fraud, corruption, and deception," wrote East Bay-based marijuana activist Mickey Martin in a blog post earlier this year.
But the housewives, the newcomers, the neophytes — they don't know. All they know is that someone is sick, and there's maybe a glimmer of hope with something called "CBD." That glimmer also inspires hucksters, who are making bucks off of vulnerable people in their time of need.