The Internet is buzzing about a new breed of marijuana that apparently causes no buzz of its own. Israeli researchers have bred cannabis plants that look, smell and taste like ordinary marijuana — but lack THC, the active ingredient responsible for the spacy, giddy and sometimes hallucinatory part of pot’s high.
What’s the point of weed that doesn’t get you high, you ask? The new product could potentially fight conditions ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease.
The new marijuana isn’t just low-THC ditch weed or hemp by a different name. Tzahi Klein of the Israeli company Tikkun Olam and his colleagues have created a strain of pot that lacks THC but is abundant in cannabidiol (CBD), typically the second most common active compound in cannabis.
“It has the same scent, shape and taste as the original plant — it’s all the same — but the numbing sensation that users are accustomed to has disappeared,” Klein told the Israeli paper Maariv. He said that many patients in his studies felt “tricked” because they thought they’d been given a placebo when they smoked it.
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But while CBD doesn’t lead to the “munchies,” hallucinations or other effects commonly felt by marijuana users, it’s far from inert. As I reported last week, a preliminary trial of CBD for the treatment of people with schizophrenia found that it was as effective as a standard antipsychotic drug — with none of the movement disorders, mood issues or weight gain linked to that class of medications.
CBD also seems to protect brain cells from damage, so much so that it is currently being studied as a way to stop the progression of the movement disorder Huntington’s disease, which is caused by degeneration of nerve cells in certain parts of the brain. CBD’s neuroprotective property has also been shown to fight Alzheimer’s disease progression in animal models — though human research has yet to be done — and to reduce seizures.
Further, the compound has anxiety-reducing effects, which may be responsible for making some types of marijuana seem mellower than others. Shorn of THC, marijuana containing CBD might be useful as an anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant. And because it doesn’t produce a noticeable high or impairment, it wouldn’t carry the risks associated with current anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax.
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All of this means that the new plant could have huge potential — if its development isn’t stymied by the fact that its ingredients can’t be patented (that means less profit for drug companies) or by the politics of the drug war. Two big ifs.
Here’s hoping that this type of medical marijuana is made available to researchers for further study and then to countries and states where it is legal for compassionate access. Patenting and political roadblocks mean it may be a long time before a synthetic version of CBD hits the market, but many questions about its safety and efficacy could be answered far more quickly.
Until now, it hasn’t been possible to get CBD from smoking marijuana without the simultaneous and possibly counterproductive exposure to THC. The new plant could change that — and perhaps shift the medical marijuana debate as well. While THC will remain essential for some medical marijuana patients — to increase appetite, for example — the non-impairing version of marijuana with CBD could help many others, without inducing the pleasure-producing properties that cause so much unending controversy.
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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.