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 the 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.
I savor the notion that I could sleep better and treat my autoimmune disease in one fell swoop. However, my other concerns remain, chiefly the specter of short-term memory loss. My husband, for one, is constantly forgetting things. The other day, he suggested we go see a film we’d already been to a month earlier. Frank Lucido, M.D., a Berkeley-based family practitioner who has spent the last 20 years issuing medical cannabis “recommendations” (the word “prescription” cannot apply to substances that are not FDA-cleared), says that, along with sedation and intoxication, short-term memory loss is a classic side effect. “I’ll tell my patients, ‘You may find yourself having to ask people to repeat things a couple of times,’ ” he says.
I earn my living as a freelance writer, and can’t afford to be absent-minded. The good news, I discover, is that marijuana’s cognitive impairments are not permanent. When you stop using for a spell, your short-term memory returns. The exception is in the case of teenagers, whose developing brains are more vulnerable, says Madeline H. Meier, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University. Meier’s 2012 study, which tracked 1,037 New Zealanders from birth to age 38, showed that heavy teenage marijuana users suffer lasting mental deficits. “Those who began using before 18, and continued to use, lost IQ points,” says Meier. Even when these subjects eventually quit as adults, their IQs did not completely bounce back.
When my friend Sophie was in her early 20s, she loved getting stoned. “Food was better, sex was better. Music, too,” she recalls. But then she started to suffer panic attacks. “Your heart thumps, you can't catch your breath, your ears catch every noise and amplify it,” says Sophie, who is 43 and hasn’t smoked for the past two decades.
Why some people find cannabis relaxing while others find it triggers anxiety may result from individual differences in the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. More likely, though, it comes down to dosage. Too much THC lowers blood pressure and increases heart rate. It can also bring on hallucinations, paranoia, and psychosis, according to Ethan Russo, M.D, a Vashon, Washington-based neurologist and cannabis researcher. “If you overdose, you could go wacko for a period of hours with paranoia and hallucinations,” says Dr. Russo, who blames high-potency concentrates such as tinctures, oils, and “dabs,” for the proliferation of these effects. Further complicating matters, we don’t even know how to measure potency; a recent study at Johns Hopkins University revealed that the cannabinoid content of the majority of edible products for sale at dispensaries are mislabeled. “Since the FDA cannot regulate cannabis, there are no standards or method of testing or manufacturing it,” says the study’s author, Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D,. Even Dr. Lucido, the sanguine Berkeley “recommender,” observes that some marijuana dispensaries interpret his instructions more innovatively than he’d like. “It throws off my dosing strategy,” he says.
The marijuana plant itself has become stronger over the past few decades: In the ‘90s, its THC levels hovered at 3%; now, strains such as “Animal Cookies” clock in at 29%. Edibles present their own problems. Because it can take up to three hours to feel their effects, novice users tend to overindulge. (Who can forget Maureen Dowd’s description in The New York Times of spending 8 hours “panting and paranoid” in a Denver hotel room after consuming too much of a cannabis chocolate bar?)
“Eating a regulated edible should be just as easy and predictable as drinking a glass of wine,” counters Andi Bickel, a willowy blonde and the 25-year-old founder and CEO of Drip Ice Cream, whose mouthwatering flavors include honey lavender and salted caramel. As we sit at the kitchen table in her mother’s spacious Southeast Portland bungalow (Bickel’s former production headquarters) she shows me the 4-ounce containers. They come with a “dosage spoon” and are printed with a cheeky safety guide explaining one spoonful (a mere 3.5 mg of THC) will bring “delightfully subtle internal twinkles.”
I’m warming to the idea of trying cannabis again when I hear about a “Tapas & Terps” dinner hosted by Laurie Wolf, author of Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis. Vaporizers will be on hand, says the Evite, and each course will be served with a strain that showcases a dominant terpene.
It’s a rain-soaked evening when my husband and I arrive at Wolf’s swank floating home in Oregon City. Our hostess ushers us into an airy living room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Willamette River and striking artwork on the walls—including an original Mapplethorpe photograph. We chill on the couch with ten others—some of whom are already passing around a vape pen. (I demur.) There’s a cannabis-activist power couple, a young woman in a chic gauzy black dress, and Laurie’s fetching daughter-in-law, Mary, with whom she runs an edibles company. Conversation flits from which pot growers use organic methods to the benefits of vape pens. “You can just slip them in your purse!” says Leah, a mother of three, whose SUV is parked outside.
Our first course arrives—button mushrooms stuffed with a garlicky sautéed mushroom filling, crowned with lavender cheese—and our goateed budtender, Tyler Hurst, offers us a puff of Blackberry Moonshine from a glass “vape bong.” It contains myrcene, a terpene known for its sedative properties. The aroma is musky and floral. I take a hit. I’m starting to get the hang of this—it’s like a wine pairing where instead of an earthy pinot, the mushroom course is paired with a myrcene-rich cannabis. Except that at this pot pairing, the guests are getting slowly stoned rather than elegantly inebriated. I ask Laurie’s son Nick, a product manager at a charter school foundation, if it’s fun having a mom who works in the cannabis industry. He’s fine with it now but it rankled him in college when she’d send care packages full of pot cookies. “I rebelled by being strait-laced,” he says. “I sure was popular, though.”
Next up are Wolf’s wonderfully crispy potatoes with juicy nubs of smoked sausage and a lemony aioli, paired with a strain called Golden Pineapple—rich in the terpenes limonene and carene. But it’s the strain that’s served with the third course—a buttery thyme-flecked shrimp-and-mango dish—whose effects I like best: J1, high in myrcene and caryophyllene. (My notes—more accurate than my memory—say, “Mellow, peppery. Smells of lavender.”) By the dessert course—a “slightly medicated” trifle (terpenes unknown) that I can’t stop eating—I’m buzzed and floaty. Back at home, though, my brain is skipping from thought to thought, keeping me up even though I’m exhausted. At 1 a.m., I pop an Ambien.
What was in the mysterious trifle? Ambien has just one active ingredient but cannabis is a complex botanical medicine with 60 cannabinoids and hundreds of terpenes, all of which we’re just starting to learn about. All of them interact synergistically, too, in something scientists call the “entourage effect.”
Two months later, I’ve downscaled my research to herbs of a gentler sort—a soporific “dream tea” of chamomile, mugwort, rose petals, damiana, lemon balm, and lavender purchased at a local botanical store. Granted, it doesn’t give me any “subtle internal twinkles” but nor does it make my heart race and my mouth dry. And so far it has lulled me to sleep every night.