Charlotte Figi was 3 months old when she started suffering seizures. Diagnosed with Dravet Syndrome, by the time she was five years old she suffered up to 300 seizures per day. She was showing signs of autistic behavior and cognitive impairment and was confined to a wheelchair and could not talk or eat.
Desperate, her parents Paige and Matt Figi brought her to Colorado in 2013 to try a marijuana-derived oil created by the Stanley brothers, six Colorado marijuana entrepreneurs who bred a low-THC version of marijuana from which cannabidiol oil (CBD) is extracted. THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive compound in marijuana plants that gives users a high.
The brothers, Joel, Jesse, Jon, Jordan, Jared and Josh eventually named their product “Charlotte’s Web” in honor of Charlotte Figi and her remarkable recovery thanks to their product. Now 11 years old, Charlotte’s seizures are controlled with twice-daily doses of Charlotte’s Web.
Now Colorado state Senator Don Coram, R-Montrose, is entering the CBD field. Coram and three partners, David Coker, Gene Chuchuru and John Reams started Paradox Ventures, Inc. in Montrose as a research and development company to produce CBD extracts.
Coram’s team combines experience with large-scale agriculture, marijuana cultivation, and business. This, Coram hopes, will lead to a successful large-scale CBD-producing operation. According to Coram the market for CBD oils is underserved and competition is not a problem.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as competition. It’s a wide-open market right now and demand is very strong,” he said.
Domestic research into the medical benefits of the compounds found in the cannabis plant has been stymied by the federal government for many decades. With the legalization of medicinal marijuana research is now possible, though still legally questionable under federal law, which still classifies the plant in the same category as heroin, regardless of its THC content.
Since 2013 studies have confirmed the utility of CBD in the treatment of seizure disorders. A report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information says, “Cannabidiol has a wide range of biologic effects with multiple potential sites of action in the nervous system. Preclinical evidence for anti-seizure properties and a favorable side-effect profile support further development of CBD-based treatments for epilepsy.”
Coram says that a 10-day visit to Israel, which is at the forefront of CBD research, convinced him of the utility of CBD oils not just for seizure relief but also for pain relief, treatment of autism and potentially to help treat opioid abuse.
Being part of creating the regulatory structure for marijuana use after the passage of Amendment 64 in 2013 is what stimulated Coram into action. During the hearings he heard testimony from the public, including those afflicted with autism, about the remarkable benefits of medical marijuana on a range of illnesses.
Coram’s wife, who attended many of the hearings, related the story told by one young man so afflicted with autism as a child that he could neither read nor write. After being treated for 15 months with CBD, which is extracted from the flowers of the cannabis plant, he was able to both write and read his testimony at the hearing.
Coram is insistent that his is not a “medical marijuana” operation. The cannabis plants he and his partners are breeding contain at most trace amounts of THC.
“We are trying to breed plants that have zero THC,” said Gene Chuchuru, grow manager for Paradox Ventures. The intent is to genetically engineer hemp plants with zero THC that produce high levels of the oils that contain cannabidiol.
Through crossbreeding and genetic analysis Chuchuru continually works to eliminate THC while boosting CBD.
Each plant they grow for processing is a clone of a female “mother plant.” Male plants that produce pollen are not used. To prevent cross-pollination with wild marijuana, or from legal recreational marijuana cultivation, rather than growing production plants from seeds, direct cloning is used.
Cuttings are taken from a group of genetically-identical mother plants and are treated with auxins, a hormone compound that causes the cuttings to grow roots instead of flowers. Individually potted, the cuttings are kept in a greenhouse as they grow and develop roots. When they are about 5 to 8 inches tall they are transplanted into the field by hand.
The mother plants grow continuously in the greenhouse under 24-hour artificial light, which suppresses the plant’s flowering phase that is triggered in nature by shortening days in the fall. This allows the same stalk to produce new branches and cloneable shoots year-round for several growing seasons without it producing flowers.
They began planting their second crop of some 30 acres in early June and will harvest in the fall.
The process of cloning is painstaking and labor-intensive. Cannabis is a very hardy plant that grows easily in many different soils. This is where wild marijuana gets its nickname “ditch weed,” because it will grow in the most unexpected places without any cultivation, including drainage ditches and other places where there is sufficient water and temperatures are conducive.
When the plants have flowered they are harvested. Each plant might contain dozens of flowers. The flowers are dried and hand-stripped from the branches and packed for shipping to one of three CBD processing labs in Colorado to have the oil extracted and purified.
The remaining stems and leaves play no part in the CBD production process and for now are being stockpiled. Commercial hemp fiber has long been used to produce everything from rope to newspapers to Levis blue jeans. Coram is examining the secondary market for the fiber byproducts of hemp flower production but is concentrating right now on perfecting a THC-free mother plant high in CBD content.
In their first year Coram’s operation harvested about 8 acres of hemp and extracted about 2 liters of CBD oils, one liter of 62 percent-pure oil from about 30 pounds of flowers and one liter of THC-free oil from about 44 pounds of flowers. They do not market the products themselves, but Coram said that their product is distributed in “at least 19 different countries.”
Coram sees hemp production as a potential economic boost for the Nucla/Naturita area in southwest Colorado, near Cortez and the Utah border, where his field growing operation takes place. The area is remote and has been in decline since the end of the uranium mining boom and jobs are about to become even more scarce.
A coal-mine closure and pending shut-down of Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s coal-fired power plant near Nucla will eliminate 83 jobs in the town, which has just more than 700 residents. The shut-down is the result of an anti-coal environmental lawsuit by Santa-Fe based WildEarth Guardians.