Cannabis is increasingly known to treat a variety of ailments, but a new, unexpected use for the plant recently has emerged amid one of the worst man-made disasters in American history. Thousands of residents were sickened and evacuated when a decrepit methane storage well at SoCalGas’ northern Los Angeles Aliso Canyon facility ruptured, initiating a months-long blowout that unleashed 100,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere from October to February — though it’s possible an even higher volume was released.
Residents of Porter Ranch and other nearby communities experienced nausea, bloody noses, and skin rashes, to name a few symptoms. One resident of nearby Granada Hills, located only two miles from Aliso Canyon, though ineligible for relocation, began to experience staggering cluster headaches. They are often called “suicide headaches” because the chronic pain can be so extreme, doctors have seen patients kill themselves to escape it. The man, who wishes to remain anonymous for reasons explained in this article, developed the condition just days before SoCalGas publicly acknowledged the leak. With few options and in severe pain, he found relief from cannabidiol (CBD) oil.
“I never experienced a single cluster headache in my life prior to the onset of these, and my symptoms virtually parallel the timeframe of the Aliso Canyon gas leak,” he told Anti-Media in an interview.“They came on with a vengeance when it began and subsided only after it was plugged.”
The man, who will be referred to as “Roger Stein,” described his symptoms:
“They began by actually waking me up in the middle of the night. They feel different from migraines, tending to start in the left top rear of the head and gradually pushing out from behind the right eye, which swells nearly shut and reddens by morning,” he explained. Stein sent a picture of his irritated right eye to his doctor, who determined his symptoms were consistent with cluster headaches.
Though Stein, 62, had experienced severe headaches before, he says these were different. “I was familiar with occasional migraine headaches. I controlled migraines very well with Excedrin and lying down, but I only suffer migraines on the average of twice per year,” he said.
Excedrin failed to stop the pain from the cluster headaches. When his doctor couldn’t pinpoint a cause, Stein tried several plans of action. He began keeping a diet and pain log to gain more insight into what could be causing the problem. He also tried several other treatments.
“I read that the symptoms of cluster headaches are similar to those of oxygen deprivation to the brain,” he said (oxygen deprivation is also a symptom of exposure to high levels of methane). He began using concentrated chlorophyll and an over-the-counter nasal spray containing capsaicin to treat the potential oxygen deprivation, and though they worked temporarily, after several weeks they ceased to be effective.
After an MRI found he had a “normal, healthy brain,” ruling out the possibility of a tumor, Stein was given several options.
His doctor recommended he try breathing with an oxygen tank, but Stein’s insurance did not cover the recommended amount. He was hesitant to begin using costly, potentially harmful drugs such as Imitrex, a migraine drug. That drug was his main option, but one of the side effects from continued use was more headaches — albeit not migraines — as well as pain or tightness in the chest, spinning sensations, tingling under the skin, vomiting, and drooling. His doctor said he would only know if the medication caused more headaches if he began using it.
“At that point, [we] still didn’t concretely know what was causing my cluster headaches,” he said. “I didn’t want to begin some prescription drug regimen that potentially would have been impossible to stop, particularly when we didn’t know if it would address the cause of the symptoms.”
Desperate for relief — and in spite of fears of getting “high” — Stein took a recommendation from a family member that he try CBD oil. “I really needed my constant, daily pain to be gone – it was limiting my life,” he said. Stein was unable to read the newspaper or even look at screens, and he was consistently waking up in the middle of the night due to the pain. Out of safe options, he obtained a license for medical cannabis in the state of California.
To ensure he did not get high, Stein purchased concentrated CBD oil produced by Pop Naturals, deemed “Super CBD” for its very low ratio of psychoactive THC — and the results were nothing short of miraculous. “I was very glad that the CBD oil’s rumored effectiveness as a pain vanquisher was right on the money,” he said. He eventually found the ACDC strain of CBD oil, another low THC, high CBD extract.
As his pain logs detail, Stein first began with a small, grain of rice-sized dose. When that did not curb the pain, he doubled it — and finally began to feel relief. He administered the oil twice daily from October 17, 2015, until the middle of February — “a day or so after the Aliso canyon leak was formally plugged by SoCalGas.” Entries in his pain log that do not mention pain, he says, are days he used the oil with success. Indeed, the logs discontinue after December, as the cannabis proved to be an effective daily remedy to the pain.
After the leak was sealed, the daily cluster headaches largely subsided, though on some days he continued to need to use the oil — which may be unsurprising considering residents’ symptoms continued long after the leak was sealed, and levels of methane have continued to measure slightly above normal in Porter Ranch.
Though there is little research on the ability of cannabis to treat headache disorders, a recent review of the available literature indicates there is potential. “Comprehensive Review of Marijuana, Cannabinoids, and Therapeutic Implications in Medicine and Headache: What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been,” published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain in 2015, concluded, “Supporting literature suggests a role for medicinal cannabis and cannabinoids in several types of headache disorders including migraine and cluster headache.” However, researchers cautioned “it is primarily limited to case based, anecdotal, or laboratory-based scientific research” and that more investigation must be conducted.
To learn more about why the CBD oil might have been so effective for Stein, Anti-Media spoke with Dr. Saoirse O’Sullivan, an endocannabinoid researcher and associate professor at the University of Nottingham School of Medicine who has conducted studies on the health effects of CBD. She explained, essentially, that it’s difficult to determine exactly what component helped Stein’s cluster headaches because CBD has so many beneficial properties.
“The thing about CBD is because it has so many facets, so many ways in which it acts, that probably, the response was a combination of a little bit of all of them,” she said, adding it was “probably not just one thing — and that’s what makes it such a rich drug.”
O’Sullivan discussed the various ways the CBD could have helped Stein’s cluster headaches, cautioning that without knowing precisely what chemicals caused them — various toxins were released over the four-month period the blowout was active — it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why the CBD was so effective. For starters, she explained, it could be that it’s an analgesic, or pain reliever. Though patients generally use THC for pain, CBD is also a viable option.
Further, she said CBD acts as a serotonin agonist. Noting such treatments are prescribed for sufferers of migraines and cluster headaches, she explained:
“In stroke, serotonin agonism helps increase blood flow, so if there is a lack of oxygen in this patient causing the headaches, CBD may have helped with this. As CBD also reduces stress and anxiety, this could have benefited the patient if tension was aggravating the headache.”
O’Sullivan, who has conducted research into cannabidiol and oxygen deprivation as a result of stroke, also discussed the potential effect of CBD on bolstering the blood brain barrier (BBB), which separates the brain from the circulatory system, protecting it from potentially dangerous chemicals.
Explaining many chemicals are “thought to make the BBB leaky,” she explained, “CBD could have prevented this leakiness and any symptoms that might have been associated with the leakiness like edema and inflammation (and CBD is anti-inflammatory which would help too with this).”
She stopped short of theorizing the CBD flat out stopped chemicals from entering the brain because, due to the lack of information, it is impossible to determine how the suspected chemicals were crossing the BBB — or exactly which chemicals caused symptoms. Nevertheless, she explained further that as an antioxidant, “CBD could reduce any oxidative stress caused by chemicals,” which, according to recent analysis, contained a plethora of metals, including barium, vanadium, manganese, lead, strontium and aluminum.
Carcinogenic benzene was also found in a small, preliminary sample of homes. Yet another class of chemicals suspected of causing symptoms during the leak were mercaptans, or odorants added to the methane to alert people it’s in the air. Finally, methane itself is linked to oxygen deprivation, which could have also contributed to Stein’s headaches.
Because of the many possible reasons why residents were so sick, it’s difficult to tease out the exact cause. Fortunately, that did not prevent the CBD from doing its job. But while the exact mechanism, or combination of them, that reduced Stein’s pain remains unclear, it is indisputable it provided him with relief.
In spite of doctors’ growing acceptance of cannabis, the stigma against it remains strong — even in California. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2014, across the country, “Already some doctors refuse to recommend it because of the conflict with federal law and the lack of research on dosage and use.” Indeed, Stein’s doctor was not surprised to learn the CBD had helped ease the pain, but he still wouldn’t go so far as to endorse it. “‘I’ve heard that’,” Stein says his doctor told him. “‘But, as a medical doctor, I can’t formally recommend that you use it.’”
Ultimately, however, Stein’s desire to remain anonymous is less a consequence of doctors’ hesitance and more a result of his concerns over impending legal action. Countless residents continued to struggle with health issues long after the leak was reported sealed. As SoCalGas rushes to resume operations at the natural gas storage facility — in spite of myriad health, environmental, and safety concerns — multiple lawsuits are already underway. These legal battles are compounded by the uncertainty surrounding what residents were exposed to and whether long-term health issues will ensue — a concern downplayed by public health officials and SoCalGas in spite of the lack of evidence supporting their claims.
Because of the murky future of the fallout from the disaster and concerns about potential health issues in the future, Stein opted to keep his real identity private.
“This is uncharted territory, for me and for Sempra Energy. I don’t want some slick corporate lawyer trying to trip me up on something I stated in this interview that may not be letter perfect in my recall in the event that I end up in court on a stretcher in the distant future,” he said.
In spite of his personal decision to, for now, keep his identity private, Stein — who has opposed the prohibition of cannabis since it was implemented decades ago — said:
“The amount of physical and psychic energy consumed by daily pain management needs to be dealt with using any method that works. If the oil does it for anyone in that position, I wholeheartedly recommend it.”
With the revelations CBD helped mitigate the effects of an environmental disaster and the chemicals it released into the environment, it seems many of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid’s capabilities is yet to be discovered.
As O’Sullivan said of the great potential of CBD, “The future for cannabidiol is really promising. It’s my favorite cannabinoid. It’s got the most potential in so many different areas.”
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