After a lengthy career in Hollywood mainly spent developing scripts and special effects for blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, Michael Backes has found a new medium: cannabis. His 2014 book, Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana, is a look at various ways in which the plant is being used and the relationship humans have had with it for many millennia.
Backes currently runs a Los Angeles-based cannabis consultancy called BHC, which works with dispensaries, cultivators, research labs, and academic institutions around the world to better understand the plant’s effects and applications. “We’re like Arthur Andersen for weed,” he says. Backes tries to serve as a functional counterpoint to what he calls the “bro science” of pot culture.
We spoke to Backes about cannabis pharmacology, his daily regimen, and what he sees as the most interesting things happening now in the world of cannabis research.
What’s your main interest in cannabis these days?
I want to find out how cannabis works—nobody really has the answer right now. Because the endocanabanoid system was only discovered in the late-’80s, it isn’t even fully mapped. Seventy years of prohibition has really thrown our knowledge of the plant into the dumpster. The plant has basically been modified by selective breeding to be all about THC, and for 12,000 years when we used this plant, the chemistry was considerably different—much broader, with more canabanoids like CBD.
Also, because it’s relatively non-toxic, people have a tendency to use way too much of it. They often don’t even know what they’re doing to themselves when they dab, for instance. I’m not a fear monger, but we know that this [endocannabinoid] system is kind of the thermostat for your body and many of its physiological properties, and nobody knows what happens if you decide you want to keep it at, you know, 104 degrees all the time. Because it’s a homesostatic regulatory system, it’s like a teeter-totter: you take a big dose of phytocannabinoids, and your body adjusts by reducing the density of receptors, with which phytocannabinoids can interact. It’s a big deal.
Was it essentially selective breeding that got the plant to this point?
Modern cannabis breeding starts in the late 1970s, when the drug war against marijuana was starting to really peak, post-Nixon and pre-Reagan. Somebody discovered these high-THC plants in Afghanistan—they were really small, and had short flowering times, meaning they were less likely to be spotted. These Afghani genetics fundamentally shifted the kind of cannabis that’s available.
And then there’s the more sophisticated extraction: they’ve taken the cannabinoids and terpenes out, left a lot of the plant waxes and stuff behind, so it’s much easier on your lungs. Goes down easy.
Is there a movement of people trying to push the plant back to its original state?
Prohibition has kind of insured a “stills in the hills” bootlegging model. Marijuana isn’t grown where it should be cultivated, it’s grown where it can be cultivated. Humboldt, Mendocino…those places are the equivalent of the mountains of West Virginia for alcohol during prohibition. It’s not the ideal place to grow cannabis. You want to grow it where you can grow things like macadamia nuts. California’s central coast is ideal. Greenhouses are also the future.
What do you consider the benefits of the more original state of the plant?
CBD appears to protect the brain structure from changes found in heavy users of THC, [which] can lead to structural changes in the hippocampus. People who smoke a lot of marijuana chronically can avoid that problem by just adding CBD to their regimen. There’s a recent study from Australia that showed something really interesting: the changes in the brain that are caused by THC alone are reversible. People who have their hair test positive for THC and CBD don’t have those changes at all.
What I do now is use primarily Type 1, high-THC strains, but I take CBD like a vitamin every morning in a coconut oil tincture. I use it instead of coffee now. If I’ve gone out and had too much alcohol the night before, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to a hangover cure. It certainly beats a spicy burrito. It makes me feel like I’ve gotten eight hours of sleep when sometimes I haven’t. It also lengthens the effect of THC, so you need less of it.
What’s the current science saying about CBD?
There’s a really interesting side effect of using CBD, which is that it reduces the appetitive effects for your preferred strains, which means that you don’t get quite as psychologically hooked on using cannabis all the time. I think of CBD like a governor, it just kind of keeps the car on the road. Generally, it’s a great idea, and one that you don’t hear a lot about. It’s one of the reasons why you don’t see a lot of [negative] social impacts of cannabis use in Lebanon and Moroco, where the plants have a lot of THC and CBD.
Cannabis is an arrow, and what my company has done is focus more on the target, which is the endocannabinoid system. There are other interventions with this system beyond cannabis: omega-3s, acupuncture, and even a runner’s high is an endocannabinoid-mediated effect. We’re looking at other plants and interventions that will restore and maintain endocannabinoid tone.
Some of the researchers we’ve worked with have mapped California cannabis, and it clusters around these small groups of chemical types that produce the same terpenes and the same cannabinoids (THC); you don’t see a lot of type 2 cannabis—plants that produce lots of THC and lots of CBD at the same time. We made the car go faster, but we removed the brakes.
Does the “sativa are up, indicas are down” argument have much weight, in your opinion?
Nope, total nonsense. You predict its effect by chemistry, not the shape of the leaves. There are narrow leaf plants that will knock you on your butt and paralyze you, while there are broad leaf plants that make you want to paint your friend’s house. You go by the chemistry, not by the shape of the plant.
Some cannabis aficionados talk about cannabis similar to the way sommeliers talk about wine, with the addition of its specific “psychological” properties.
“It’s an impetuous little sativa, I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.” There are some significant differences: how much cannabis do you use, which means, how much tolerance have you developed? That’s why I like to keep my tolerance really low—I like the nuance. I like to take a hit and have it spark my creativity, rather than just get plastered.
How do you keep your tolerance low?
I control my dose. I’m really, really, really conscious of it. The minimum effective dose is what I want, every time. It’s like tequila, you don’t want to drink half a bottle. You won’t have that same toxic reaction with cannabis, but building that tolerance is a toxic reaction to me, and I don’t want it. I kind of started out as a lightweight, and I never pushed that far beyond it. I was never one of these guys who would wake and bake, or smoke ten joints a day.
Is there much science about the effect of cannabis on sleep?
There’s not lot of research data, but there’s interesting observational data saying that for people who wake up after their second sleep cycle—go to bed around 11PM, wake up around 3:30AM—a small dose of oral cannabis, about 5mg, can help them stay asleep. So you take it before you go to bed, and when you’re asleep it helps you stay asleep.
A lot of people use pot and believe that it helps them, but it’s tough for them to explain exactly how.
A lot of people aren’t clinically depressed, but a lot of people have depression. I mean, they live in a world where Donald Trump is a major political figure. I like cannabis for increasing awareness, rather than numbing it. It’s a phenomenal plant for increasing your sensitivity to the world, rather than using it to the point where it just makes you comatose.
When Paul McCartney first tried cannabis, his assistant Mal Evans was ordered to follow him around because he was having so many ideas. That was a low-THC, low-myrcene variety. They started smoking it around the time of Revolver, and what did they do next? Sgt. Pepper. There’s a lot to be said for reasonable dose control.