DON'T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK
For hundreds of years, until Magellan circumnavigated the globe, conventional European wisdom held that the Earth was flat.
“It had been known for thousands of years that the Earth was round,” Dr. Ethan Russo says. “The ancient Greeks knew this, and they actually pretty accurately predicted the diameter of the Earth. One way that they knew this was, as a seafaring nation, when a ship is coming into port, the first thing you see is the top of the mast. Then you see the sails. Eventually you see the hull of the ship. This could only happen if ships are coming over an arc. If people get high enough in the mountains it’s possible to discern the curvature of the Earth. There were people that have known forever that the earth was round, but church dogma was different.”
Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) was an Italian scientist who challenged the ideas of Aristotle about the way in which the Earth moved in our universe and introduced the concept of time into ideas about motion. Around 1609, Galileo worked with a lens grinder to take two lenses and place them at opposite ends of a metal tube, making a design for a telescope, which was created originally by Dutch scientists, that was more accurate and usable. Through this device, Galileo discovered craters on the moon, the moons of Jupiter, sun spots, the rings of Saturn and the phases of Venus. He determined that the Earth’s moon was not a source of light but rather of reflected light, and he found that nebulous stars were, in fact, actually a number of small stars clustered together. He used the term magnitude in describing the brightness of the fixed stars. In doing so, he confirmed the earlier theory, put forward by Polish philosopher Nicolaus Copernicus, about the revolution of the Earth around the sun. Galileo also believed in the idea of matter being composed of small particles, because it seemed to be consistent with the nature and behavior of matter.
Galileo reported his findings in his book The Starry Messenger. Criticism of Galileo’s observations began immediately, and he was summoned by the Catholic Church to Rome and ordered to desist teaching Copernican theory. The authorities at Rome would not even look through his telescope. Why not?
This wasn’t just a struggle between faith and reason. Galileo was one of the faithful, arguing in favor of what he called natural philosophy and that new scientific discovery did not contradict the deeper meanings of the Holy Scriptures. He believed that the wise man should seek the true meaning of the scriptures and that sense experience and necessary demonstrations beautifully revealed this truth.
None of his arguments mattered to the Church leaders or the broader society, however, because of the intrinsic view of the unknown that perpetuated Galileo’s culture. Observing something that could not be seen with the naked eye, such as the movement of the Earth, may have felt like seeing apparitions or hearing voices: preposterous and mad. But even more so, his ideas threatened the status quo. They threatened the Church’s stranglehold on scientific thought and its ability to hold the confidence of its faithful. If someone other than the Pope was correct about the world, then the whole infrastructure of the Church and its influence and power could dissolve.
In 1633 Galileo was formally interrogated for eighteen days by Church men who were determined to see his theories derided as the work of the Devil. To mitigate his possible punishment, he confessed that he may have made the Copernican case too definitively and offered to refute it in his next book, but the Church decided that Galileo should be imprisoned indefinitely under the tenets of the Inquisition. In a formal ceremony at the church of Santa Maria Sofia Minerva, Galileo was given both physical and religious punishment and sentenced to house arrest in Sienna until his death in 1642.
The Church finally pardoned Galileo for his so-called crimes in 1983.
Science, reason, and fear
“I think the number one explanation is prejudice,” Russo says when asked why CBD is off the table for so many health practitioners. “It’s in scholarly journal articles. There are thousands of studies that have been completed. What CBD isn’t in, to the extent that it needs to be, is the textbooks and the curricula of courses in medical school.”
As Russo states, science can identify truth long before it’s generally accepted by the rest of us, and that includes our physicians. Family doctors have a practical education, but they’re generally not researchers. As we’ve already discussed, doctors aren’t privy to the millions of health care findings that are revealed by researchers every year. Unless they’re seeking out new ideas on their own or they’re pushed toward new beliefs by Big Pharma, they’re likely not to hear about the nuances of peer-reviewed research findings and how these can be applied in a medical practice. The human body is made up of trillions of cells that align with each other in patterns to form tissue, which, in turn, create the organs in our body. Each organ uses its own set of tissue, which requires specific processes and chemical reactions in order to function. The more we collectively learn about the science of the human body, the more it may not actually be possible for any one doctor to truly understand each of these processes.
Perhaps even more germane to this challenge is the limited amount of time that health care providers have to help us get well. The average general physician has a fifteen-minute window in which to listen, assess, diagnose and prescribe a definitive solution to each patient. They’re seeing dozens of patients in a row, and they have to rely on their medical traditions and shorthand to get through their days efficiently.
Prescribing CBD requires health care providers to dig deep and really listen to patients, and it requires going against allopathic conventions to look beyond the traditional Western medical education process.
So why don’t they? What are doctors afraid of?
Economic privilege and the common weed
To understand what we do and do not know about the human body, we have to unpack tradition from science. Both can be valid means by which to treat people and gain access to health.
The problem is that of privilege.
As Dr. Reggie Gaudino says, there’s a split down ethnic and cultural lines as to what kinds of medicines are considered to be respected by physicians. “Indigenous populations that I’ve had the opportunity to talk with are saying that they’ve always used cannabis medicines. This is indigenous populations from around the world, not just the Hopi Nations who have been known for this kind of care. There are a lot of people, a lot of indigenous cultures poised and looking at what is happening in this research space, but the division comes down to color. People of color believe in CBD, but yet the fork in the road to general acceptance is largely created and controlled by people who are not of color.”
Like the story of Galileo whose scientific discoveries threatened the Catholic church which, at the time, controlled great swathes of the world’s resources, CBD feels threatening to those who control our financial resources in the United States, mostly because it can be grown at home.
Let’s go back even further in the CBD story to see where this privilege may have developed.
Hemp, like other medicinal plants, was once part of a range of plant medicines that were passed down from generation to generation. We know that traditional plant medicines that we’ve ignored in the past actually pass muster when it comes to clinical trials. Ginseng (Panax ginseng), in its berry and root forms, has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine as a means to regulate bodily functions including the digestive and endocrine systems. In recent years, ginseng has been shown to decrease blood sugar, total blood cholesterol and triglycerides.1 Empirical studies have demonstrated that the use of cinnamon, bitter gourd, fenugreek and ivy gourd can have varying hypoglycemic effects, as well as effects on the ability of individuals to respond positively to overall diabetes treatments.2 We’ve used plants like yarrow, for example, for wound healing, decreasing inflammation and infection, reducing scarring, creating hormonal balance, fighting mastitis and managing blood pressure. We’ve also used feverfew, digitalis, garlic, chamomile, as well as saffron and St John’s wort (which we’ve already discussed) among many thousands of other plants, to solve common health problems. You may know about white willow bark, which contains the plant molecule that we use in Aspirin. All of these plants contain active molecules that we’ve replicated in labs as pharmaceuticals for products that we take daily.
At the heart of the use of these plants, therefore, is our collective wisdom. And, collectively, we’ve cultivated these plants and brought them with us on our travels in populating the earth, especially hemp.
“We went everywhere with hemp because this plant could go everywhere,” Gaudino explains. “It can grow in marshes, it can grow in the Himalayas, it can grow in the desert. As well, it has so many functions: we raised seed from it, we could eat it and we got fiber from it to make clothes. We knew early on, at least four thousand years ago, that it could be used as medicine. In ancient Egyptian, Sumerian and Chinese texts, we find symbols of the cannabis leaf and writings about how they used it as an oil, in poultices and on our backs. It’s been found entombed in earthenware with ancient Chinese tribal leaders.”
The hemp plant became not only important to human existence, but it became sacred as well. Ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, from the University of Victoria in Canada, is one of the world’s leaders on how indigenous populations engage with the plant world, and she explains that, often, to these indigenous communities, humans are considered the weakest link in our known world. Plants, like animals, are seen as sacred because they are strong, and therefore these species have a duty to care for humans. In turn, Turner says, “We have obligations, as we do to our human relatives, to care for the plants and animals that we depend on.”
What we call weed, Turner shares, is linked to the Anglo-Saxon word woad, which meant herb.3 Although woad is now aligned specifically with the plant Isatis tinctoria, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, woad is likely related to the Latin vātēs (“seer, prophet”) and the Old Irish fáith (“seer”), representing how magical, and how deeply needed, we once believed plant medicines to be: they showed us the way to a better future. The origin stories that we have for cannabis and other plant medicines, therefore, are linked to our spiritual connection with the Earth. Weeds of all kinds, including cannabis, which is so commonly known by that term, were once valued and treasured as herbs, and, as Turner laments, most of us have lost the knowledge that goes with them. It is this indigenous focus on our reciprocity and shared caregiving with plants that is at the heart of the question of privilege.
Let’s consider the shift from common land to proprietary land that took place in Western countries about a thousand years ago. The commons were lands that were made available for everyone to use and were designed for the creation of shared agricultural resources. From medieval times, the ruling classes had an obligation to provide land for everyone to use, including forests, fields and rivers, but in return for these resources, all citizens were obliged to take care of them. The commons had a distinct historical importance because it allowed peasants who did not own land a relative degree of freedom in providing for their families, by using the commons to graze their animals and by using forests to forage for food and to hunt.
With the rise of commercial society in the West, however, the idea of shared resources began to wane. By the Middle Ages, the Church and the ruling classes began to divvy up the land for their own use. Instead of being owned by everyone, land was owned by individuals. Under the former social contract, even with all of its limitations, the supreme direction of the general will allowed for all people to work together for a common cause. By the Enlightenment, land ownership became sacrosanct; those with land were seen as not only economically but also morally pristine citizens. Privilege was, therefore, being provided to some but not to others, which included rights to economic well-being as well as political rights. This meant that those without access to privately owned resources such as land could not vote and therefore could not protect themselves and their families from exploitation.
There were protests to this new way of life, one that split the haves from the have-nots, even during the Enlightenment. Individuals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher, who wanted to defend their right to freedom from oppression challenged this new status quo. He wrote a book in 1754 called Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said, ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society,” Rousseau wrote sarcastically. “From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”4
What Rousseau meant was that the shift away from the commons delegitimized the idea that we are a part of an ecosystem and that we have a right to share the bounty of farm, forest and field.
Winning the medicine game
Eventually, ownership of the land, Turner explains, meant that plants too became owned by those who owned the land. And those plants that grew in the wild, the weeds that were viewed as the community’s traditional medicine and food systems, were suddenly not perceived as legitimate.
When we look at our social environment today, the focus of businesses on winning at all costs makes it almost impossible for leaders, employees and other stakeholders to take other important matters into consideration, such as people, the environment or even the need for ethical behavior. There are no moral tenets that guide decisions around the acquisition or use of resources that are connected to the idea that we have a responsibility to the land. Despite the fact that there are laws in place, businesses also do their best to work around these laws. Individuals aim to acquire wealth in an unchecked way, and there is a significant polarization between rich and poor that has been caused by the greed of the wealthy to continue to acquire resources, especially the control of land and money.
A hemp crop that delivers value for clothing, building, designing, medical care and much more became a weed because it grew everywhere. It couldn’t be contained. Hemp slowly lost its healing and its spiritual value; it became an afterthought. Plants that were exclusive, or that couldn’t easily be used or accessed by the majority of people, were those that became prized and privileged.
Alex Chwaiewsky, founder and CEO of Blue Sky Botanicals, a Canadian hemp company, says that this weed should still be considered a magical plant. “There are so many native leaders who call hemp the green buffalo,” Chwaiewsky explains. “It really provided for people in the same way the buffalo provided.”5
Using hemp fiber for clothes may even have been a pathway to health. “Historically, we didn’t bleach our fabrics,” Gaudino explains. “Scientific terminologies, phagocytosis and pinocytosis, mean ‘self eating’ and ‘self drinking,’ which means that our cells have the ability to absorb through the surface. So, when you wove hemp, you were touching the fibers, you were wearing unbleached and natural clothes, and, chances are, we actually would sweat and absorb some of the cannabinoids in doing so.”
Chances are that Gaudino is right. We actually have a history of absorbing chemicals from our clothes, such as in so-called mad hatter’s disease—which was caused by the mercury once employed in felting hats—and the deaths caused by arsenic used to dye women’s dresses a bright green both in the nineteenth century. Our bodies are sponges. The skin is one of the first places to show signs of toxicity and sometimes called the third kidney because it functions much like the kidneys. The skin receives onethird of all the blood circulated in the body, which means that it can easily absorb what we place next to it.
When we stopped wearing hemp with regularity and stopped processing it for other daily uses, says Gaudino, we actually may have increased our collective risk for disease. “We have evolved with hemp. You know, around one hundred years ago, we saw a tremendous increase in disease. A lot of those diseases are inflammation-based. What happened one hundred years ago? Cannabis became illegal. In 1937 you could still get cannabis tinctures from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, and it was a ubiquitous medicine in our pharmacopeia until then. And when we stopped working with hemp fibers, which were also made illegal, everything changed.”
Russo agrees with Gaudino and says that at the same time that we were dismantling our common access to land, the way we eat also changed. “The American diet is very pro-inflammatory. A healthy human diet is one that weighs more heavily toward anti-inflammatory compounds. Our diet is also poor in fruits and vegetables, particularly ones with bioactive compounds, pigmented plants with bioflavonoids that help reduce the risk of cancer and balance the bacteria in our guts. We’ve lost our anti-inflammatory diet use of probiotics, fermented foods, prebiotics and vegetable matter that feeds the good bacteria.”
In short: we’ve largely discarded our natural way of being and all of the traditional knowledge that goes along with it.
Here’s where we often get it wrong.
The greatest good of society is not served through the rampant acquisition of individual wealth and resources, which creates barriers between what is profitable and what actually works to protect us.
Without personal and societal checks and balances in place, such as a focus on duty or the pressure of civil society or legal frameworks, there is a risk that there will be ongoing issues related to the unrestrained, so-called progress of our American society toward industrialized solutions for our health.
The Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790) is considered the inventor of our modern capitalist system. He’s the man to whom we owe our American Dream. Living in the Enlightenment period, Smith interpreted the idea of economic health and social welfare in a broader way. Smith, in his book The Wealth of Nations,6 incorporated a social and political critique of the kind of free capitalism that we’ve adopted in the United States, and which drives Big Pharma. Despite his ideas about the need for industrial production and his contention that a freer form of trade would create economic growth, in that it would create jobs and increase the middle class, Smith also believed that all people must benefit in a well-run economy. He put forward the idea that if a product could become less expensive for everyone through industrialization, this would also create a social benefit.
But Smith’s vision for capitalism isn’t borne out in real life: in the United States, we have increased the wealth of a very few by dividing our wealth rather than sharing it. And, we apply that same industrial vision to medicine, even though it goes against our instincts and our traditions honed over thousands of years of practice.
Winning the medicine game should not be about making the process faster. It shouldn’t be about making drugs accessible only to the wealthiest among us. It shouldn’t be driven by the kinds of assumptions found in our day-to-day medical care in physicians’ offices.
“I think people need to educate their doctors,” Russo says. “They hate it when a patient comes in with what’s called, in French, the malady du petit papier. The sickness of the little paper. What it means is the patient is trying to teach the doctor something. It was considered indicative of neurosis in the patient, which itself is an outmoded term. This is a movement that’s been driven by the patients.”
Some people do educate their doctors successfully.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices are health care options that include forms of support that are not typically used in Western medical communities, such as massage therapy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, yoga practice, naturopathy, nutritionism or herbalism.7 Many patients and health care providers use alternative treatments together with conventional therapies, which together have become known as complementary medicine.
The premise behind these alternatives is that a medical care provider has to treat the person as a holistic unit in need of health rather than as a collection of body parts and diseases. The physical evidence shows that these health care modalities can be very effective. For example, a patient’s need for lifestyle and nutrition changes after the onset of Type 2 diabetes may be better served through the care of a naturopath or nutritionist rather than a family doctor, as has been shown in empirical studies of diabetes care, because of their focus on these areas.8 Similarly, in a randomized controlled trial with patients with multiple sclerosis, it was found that there was a significant increase in overall health and range of movement when they engaged in yoga therapy led by a nurse practitioner, which decreased their need for medication and hospitalization.9 These are only a handful of examples of medical practices that seem to be on the edge of rational thought, and yet they work in statistically significant ways.
In the United States, patients are educating their primary care doctors on the use of CAM and CBD. Recent studies have shown that CAM is increasingly being used: approximately 28.9 percent of respondents reported using at least one form of complementary medicine even though the clinical effectiveness of unconventional methods has been controversial among many medical professionals.10
As a whole, CAM patients tend to be younger, female and better educated than the average patient, especially in the United States and Europe.11 Women may be more likely to look into varied health care options because they are already on the opposite side of existing power structures: they self-educate in order to find options not presented to them by the male-dominated health care system.12 Women have less privilege in the scientific community and as patients, and so they tend to forge their own less traditional medical path.
At the same time, more people in general are trying out these therapies, especially as some of the modalities have begun to be used on a large scale in some areas of the world. A broad review of costs and health care outcomes in Europe has shown that using CAM, even with elderly patients with complex needs, can lead to approximately one-third lower health care costs to the system as a whole and decreased mortality rates for the population. To this end, in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and even in the United Kingdom, five main streams of CAM (anthroposophic medicine, homeopathy, neural therapy, phytotherapy and traditional Chinese medicine) are covered by the mandatory health insurance system. The financial and physical care outcomes are so substantial that more countries are trying out this method of addressing both costs and benefits for care.
The bottom line, as Turner explains, is that we no longer trust our instincts when it comes to plant medicines. What we get our pleasure from, what satisfies us and what heals us can be easily drawn from the natural world, and yet we are fixated on material things, things we have to create in a lab or a factory or both. We have a prejudice against indigenous forms of knowledge because we believe that faster, more efficient and more expensive life solutions are better solutions. We think that value equals financial wealth, when, at the heart of our shared cultural history, we once were so committed to our relationship with plants that they became part of our spiritual truth.
Medicine wheels, or stone circles with spokes like a wheel, represent the values of connection between people, between clans and between human beings and nature for many subcultures within Indigenous communities in North America. Medicine wheel teachings are said to be the first and most ancient First Nations teachings, and the wisdom of the circle at one time provided spiritual and socio-behavioral guidance to an individual, as well as healing. These are a reminder of the power that can be harnessed to create balance for the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of human life.13
We can find this balance, but, as Gaudino warns, humanity has come to a fork in the road. “Down one path is cannabis and salvation, down the other path is destruction. I’m not saying this to be alarmist, but we have to break that stigma.” CBD provides that balance for many people, and like the medical practices of our ancestors, it is related to ritual and our history of plant medicine, spiritual commitment and practice. It’s part of a new way of thinking about slowing down the process of identifying and treating disease. It’s linked to preventative and holistic care for the human body and our environment. Even better, it shifts us away from the American tendency to muscle through medical care with an obsessive, tunnel-vision focus.
We need the unbridled freedom to do what’s logical and, to me, that means challenging our own thinking about plant medicines.
1. [Murthy, H.N., Dandin, V.S., Lee, E.J. & Paek, K.Y. (2014). Efficacy of ginseng adventitious root extract on hyperglycemia in streptozotocin-induced diabetic rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 153(3), 917–921.]↩
2. [Medagama, A.B., & Bandara, R. (2014). The use of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) in the treatment of diabetes mellitus: is continued use safe and effective? Nutrition Journal, 13(1), 102.]↩
3. [Ethnological Society. (1863). Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London. London: Author.]↩
4. [Rousseau, J.J. (1754). Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. Paris. II.ii.]↩
5. [Hempsters, K. (2015). Why is hemp known as the ‘green buffalo’ of plants? Leafly. Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/why-is-hemp-known-as-the-green-buffalo-of-plants]↩
6. [Smith, A. (1776/1981). The Wealth of Nations. London: Penguin.]↩
7. [Committee on the Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by the American Public (CUCAMAP). (2015). Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.]↩
8. [Schoenberg, N.E., Stoller, E.P., Kart, C.S., Perzynski, A. & Chapleski, E.E. (2004). Complementary and alternative medicine use among a multiethnic sample of older adults with diabetes. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 10(6), 1061–1066.]↩
9. [Oken, B., Kishiyama, S. & Zajdel, D. (2004). Randomized controlled trial of yoga and exercise in multiple sclerosis. Neurology, 62, 2058–2064.]↩
10. [Oken, B., Kishiyama, S. & Zajdel, D. (2004). Randomized controlled trial of yoga Frass, M., Strassl, R.P., Friehs, H., Müllner, M., Kundi, M. & Kaye, A.D. (2012). Use and acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine among the general population and medical personnel: a systematic review. The Ochsner Journal, 12(1), 45–56.]↩
11. [Kooreman, P. & Baars, E.W. (2012). Patients whose GP knows complementary medicine tend to have lower costs and live longer. The European Journal of Health Economics, 13(6), 769–776.]↩
12. [Lewis, S. et al. (Eds.) (2013). Medical-Surgical Nursing in Canada (3rd ed.). Toronto: Elsevier]↩
13. [Waldram, J.B. (2014). Healing history? Aboriginal healing, historical trauma, and personal responsibility. Transcultural Psychiatry, 51(3), 370–386.>↩