Now that cannabis is legal recreationally in Oregon, I thought I'd give it a try for my occasional insomnia. Here's what happened, in the December issue of Vogue. Along the way, I dig into the science and find out how terpenes influence your high (more than indica vs. sativa), which conditions cannabis actually helps, and why it can cause anxiety, paranoia, and even hallucinations in some people but not others.
Here's a teaser of a longer version I wrote, for those who don't subscribe.
Last fall, Oregon became the fourth state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. In my hometown of Portland, people began lighting up on street corners, friends threw pot-themed dinner parties, and I heard whispers about a chef who hand-delivers salted caramel “medibles.” Farma, a dispensary a mile from my house, is so spare, modernist, and color-coded that it looks more like a Damien Hirst installation than a head shop. Buds with names like Island Sweet Skunk and Dogwalker are displayed beneath the glass like so many exquisite chocolates.
Whenever my husband, an unrepentant marijuana enthusiast, invites me to join him, I decline. On the few occasions I have experimented, a creeping agitation has tempered any sense of euphoria, and I’m terrified of becoming like the dopey-eyed, shiftless stoner boys I remember from high school. I struggle with insomnia, however, and my cocktail of remedies—valerian, wine, and Ambien—has become less and less reliable. Which is how I find myself at Farma one afternoon, consulting with the slender young salesperson behind the counter.
Two women my mother’s age are sniffing a canister of buds, a tall man with a baseball cap is nonchalantly buying a pre-rolled joint, and a 20-something blond in skinny jeans and a Pendleton jacket is examining the $280 Pax vaporizer.
“I’m looking for something that will help me sleep—an indica?” I stammer, naming the strain I’ve read delivers a calming high (another, sativa, has a reputation for working as a stimulant).
“We don’t classify cannabis that way here,” my budtender tells me knowingly. “It’s the terpenes that are important.”
Terpenes are the aromatic oils that confer character on each strain of marijuana and are believed to be responsible for particular effects. So while every label at Farma lists the percentages of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), pot’s main psychoactive compound (i.e. that promises a buzz), and cannabidiol (CBD), the medicinal elements that ease pain and anxiety but won’t get you high, terpenes are the star ingredient. As my attendant explains, strains with a red label give you an energetic high, whereas those with a blue one are calming. She selects a glass jar from the latter category and waves it under my nose.
“I’d try Blueberry Malawi combined with a CBD-rich strain like Harlequin,” she suggests cheerfully.
My head is whirling, and not because of the buds’ piney, aroma. I was too much of a square to try pot until the summer after college, when I traipsed around Amsterdam with my sister and best friend making obligatory stops at the city’s famous “coffee shops.” But in this brave new world of legalized weed, here I am, ready to reconsider and explore the drug’s much vaunted health benefits.
Research among my peers yields that Sarah, the owner of a Portland clothing store, uses cannabis as a sleeping aid several times a week. As does Amina, an engineer at a well-known Bay Area tech company. “I’ve literally tried everything: hypnotism, pills, you name it,” says Amina, who is 30 and has grappled with chronic insomnia throughout her adult life. Ambien makes her feel like a zombie the next day. “Smoking weed helps tremendously,” she tells me. “And I feel that it’s better for my body than the other drugs I’ve taken.”
It alarms me, however, that our acceptance of marijuana—and the thriving, out-in-the-open industry that is flourishing around it—has taken root faster than the scientific world can keep up with it. We know precious little about the specific ways marijuana does what it does, let alone which “route of administration”—smoking, vaping, eating, or using cream, patches, or tinctures—is optimal for which malady, and at which dosage. At the federal level, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug with no accepted medical use, which means that funding for human studies has been scarce. (Last June, the Obama administration lifted a barrier to research, but those in the field say it’s still a bureaucratic maze.)
Before I embark and imbibe, I want to know more. I start with Mark Ware, M.D., head of the Quebec Cannabis Registry, the world’s first research database for medical cannabis. Dr. Ware confirms what my friends are telling me—that a handful of pain studies, including his own clinical trial, show that improved sleep is a proven secondary outcome of cannabis. Yet the causality is still a mystery. “It’s not clear if cannabis works on the pain primarily—if your pain is improved, you sleep better,” he says, pointing out that another possibility is that those who sleep soundly are more equipped to handle pain.
As I sift through the research on cannabinoids’ abilities, I learn that marijuana could be of use to me in another way: It reduces inflammation, and may even reduce the inflammatory proteins linked with some autoimmune diseases. “CBD in particular is a very potent anti-inflammatory,” says Raphael Mechoulam, a chemistry professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who is famous for having isolated marijuana’s key compounds in the 1960s. More recently, his lab has shown that CBD blocks the development of autoimmune Type 1 diabetes in mice. This stops me in my tracks. The FDA-approved drugs I’ve been on for 20 years to treat an autoimmune disease may cause osteoporosis and lymphoma. Could cannabis be more effective, not to mention safer?
Katie McCobb, a 34-year-old tech analyst in Portland, thinks so. The first thing I notice about McCobb when we meet is her strong physique. It’s hard to believe that this woman, who cycles 100 miles a week, has lupus, an autoimmune disease in which her immune system attacks her tissues and organs, causing debilitating joint pain and fatigue. After she was diagnosed in 2013, McCobb was prescribed Prednisone and Plaquenil. Frustrated by the immunosuppresants’ side effects, which include nausea and loss of appetite, she tapered off both medications against her doctor’s wishes—replacing them with a cannabis tincture (a liquid concentration that is administered under the tongue). Since then, she says, her pain has decreased by more than half.
To read the rest, grab a copy of the Dec. issue of Vogue. Or order it on Magzter.