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The ABCs of CBD: Why NFL players and others hope cannabis can be key to pain relief

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the most common chemical compounds found in the marijuana plant. While CBD can help with mental and physical relaxation, it’s not psychoactive like its more famous molecular cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

NFL players hope CBD research leads to breakthroughs with treatment for neurological disorders including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Cannabidiol also has been linked to helping arthritis, epilepsy, heart disease, insomnia, neuropathic pain, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Cannabinoids look for tissues in the body that express what are called cannabis receptors. They stick to the cells and turn them on to cause the cells to do something, said Richard J. Miller, a Northwestern University pharmacology professor. A lot of the cells that have these receptors are nerve cells in the brain, but also are found in the peripheral nervous system.

Experts say more research is needed before accepting any definitive answers on how CBD might help specific conditions. While scientists have concluded THC acts as a pain reliever, they have yet to determine if CBD has similar qualities.

“Maybe it is good for pain,” said Miller, author of “Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs.” “There isn’t a very extensive size of scientific literature.”

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CBD products are offered in oils, sprays, vapes, flower buds and edibles, much like THC. Some companies sell hemp-based CBD but it has led to a lot of confusion about what is most effective and what is legal.

Pet treats with CBD are sold to help animals with relaxation, anxiety and pain. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved cannabis products for animals so veterinarians can’t prescribe them.

Marijuana growers are breeding CBD-rich strains of cannabis for those who don’t want the mind-altering effects of THC. But some experts say the two cannabinoids work best in tandem to treat certain ailments.

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U.S. federal law does not differentiate between CBD and THC, making it difficult to get approved clinical trials for the non-psychoactive compound because it is a Schedule 1 drug like heroin.

The drug dronabinol is made from cannabis’ THC molecule and prescribed to treat vomiting and nausea from cancer chemotherapy as well as loss of appetite and weight loss in patients suffering from the HIV infection. No such equivalent drug involving CBD exists yet.

Brazilian professor Francisco Guimaraes told the Washington Post that CBD “is Disneyland for a pharmacologist. There are so many possible mechanisms, so many possible ways it can be useful.”