TN: For Patients Like 3-Year-Old Arlie Wolfe, CBD Might Offer Some Hope

Photo Credit: Lisa Wolfe

Arlie Wolfe is a beautiful 3-year-old girl with bright blue eyes, a warm, somewhat shy smile and a shock of blond hair — though it’s beginning to thin. She’s currently undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, and that means lots of long days and sleepless nights, during which she’s plagued by pain and discomfort.

Arlie was diagnosed in June 2016, just a month before her second birthday. But with treatment, she went into remission quickly. “She was the perfect, textbook cancer child,” says Arlie’s mother Lisa Wolfe, a hair stylist and amateur photographer who’s been documenting her daughter’s stay at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. During her remission, Arlie went into what’s known as maintenance therapy, which included light-dose chemo. Her lab work and checkups went well. Everything was looking good, with plans to wrap up treatment by September 2018.

But just six weeks ago, Lisa got the phone call she’d always dreaded: Doctors had found myeloblasts in Arlie’s blood. Her leukemia was back in full force, and she needed aggressive treatment. Now Arlie is on chemotherapy, taking steroids, antibiotics and sometimes oxycodone for the pain caused both by her illness’s symptoms and the medications’ side effects.

When Arlie was first diagnosed, a holistic nutritionist suggested her parents try giving her a hemp extract containing cannabidiol, or CBD for short. CBD is one of more than 100 cannabinoids — that is, chemical compounds found in cannabis — and its proponents say it can help with everything from mitigation of nausea and inflammation to reducing anxiety and aiding in sleep. But even as the use of CBD products, which are legal in our state and elsewhere, becomes more prevalent, some people continue to conflate cannabidiol and medical marijuana.

“I started using it for [Arlie’s] steroid rage — the steroids cause extreme anxiety and anger,” says Wolfe of a hemp extract containing CBD. “I started using it on her for the rage, the nausea, the discomfort — when I felt like she just was not feeling good, I’d give her a drop, and she would calm down and usually just go to sleep.”

With hemp extracts now available in locations like health food stores and via independent local vendors, Lisa says she’s also been taking CBD herself.

“This whole time I was taking it for my anxiety and depression, because clearly I am a hot mess,” she says. “I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. I’ve been on every anxiety pill you can imagine, every depression medicine, and none of it has ever had good side effects. So I completely quit about five years ago. I was like, ‘I’m gonna try to do this on my own,’ and it’s been a struggle. [Taking CBD oil] has helped me tremendously with my anxiety through this, and my sleep.”

Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, another of the cannabinoids found in cannabis — CBD is not psychoactive, and it can be derived from industrial hemp, the cultivation of which is now legal in most states, including Tennessee.

“By definition, industrial hemp is cannabis sativa plants that have less than 0.3 percent THC,” says Paige Thompson, vice president of administration at the Tennessee Hemp Industries Association, a nonprofit trade organization that educates the public on industrial hemp and lobbies for the passage of pro-hemp legislation. “[THC] is psychoactive, and CBD is a nonpsychoactive component. So CBD does not get you high, but it is one of many of the cannabinoids and therapeutic chemicals in the cannabis plant.”

The U.S. Farm Bill, which was signed into law by President Obama in February 2014, defines hemp as distinct from marijuana. It also authorizes institutions of higher education or state departments of agriculture in states where hemp cultivation is legal to regulate and conduct research and pilot programs. According to Tennessee Code Annotated § 43-10-103, which was amended after new legislation passed in 2017, “Any person who grows or processes industrial hemp in this state must obtain an annual license from the department of agriculture.”

One of those people is Will Tarleton, a Middle Tennessee farmer out of the Six Boots Growers’ Collective. Through his company Tennessee Grown, he’s licensed to cultivate and process industrial hemp.

“We give the Department of Agriculture data and research on the marketing, the growing, the processing, the production — all the data that we can collect,” says Tarleton of his hemp farming operation. “In exchange for us giving them that data and us being an agent for the Department of Agriculture, they allow us to financially benefit from the derivatives of the industrial hemp that we grow.”

Hemp extract containing CBD is among those derivatives, but Tarleton says he’s also working toward developing hemp as a woven textile, high-protein livestock feed and more. He’s eager to see hemp farming as a source of rural-development stimulus, and now that the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s pilot program is in its third year, he’s hopeful that it will be embraced on a larger scale.

“Once we get past the education and de-demonizing of the crop itself and move into real-world applications for health and industrial uses,” says Tarleton, “then I think more large entities will be willing to engage with our industry.”

So licensed cultivation of industrial hemp is legal in the state, and possession of products that contain CBD and are derived from said hemp is legal. But a crackdown last month proved hemp advocates still have a long way to go in educating law enforcement and others. In a series of raids executed under the handle “Operation Candy Crush,” the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office padlocked 23 stores that were found to be selling candy containing CBD.

“If you possess this without a prescription, you have broken the law,” said Rutherford County Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh at a press conference after the raids. “If you are selling this without a prescription, or if you’re not a pharmacy selling it to someone with a prescription for it, you have broken the law.”

That didn’t sit well with some hemp advocates, including TNHIA president Joe Kirkpatrick.

Said Kirkpatrick in a statement: “Unless the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department and the Murfreesboro, Smyrna, and LaVergne municipal law enforcement investigators can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the CBD products were derived from a ‘marijuana’ source rather than an ‘industrial hemp’ source, they are in clear contravention of the law.”

Less than a week after the raids, Circuit Court Judge Royce Taylor mandated that the 23 stores be permitted to resume operations. On Feb. 28, Rutherford County’s district attorney signed an order dropping all charges against the stores.

“I think just like anything that’s new, or a new industry, it takes time for the education to evolve,” says the TNHIA’s Thompson. “And for it to be completely adopted in a community, it takes education.” She points to TNHIA projects like a hemp maze and other hands-on events like fiber workshops that, to borrow Tarleton’s phrase, de-demonize the plant.

Studies have linked use of cannabinoids to a reduction in seizures in epileptics and to antipsychotic effects among schizophrenics, among other benefits. Even so, Wolfe says she doesn’t receive much of a response when she mentions hemp products to the health care professionals who come to check on little Arlie (“They just look at me,” she says), or to parents unfamiliar with the supposed health benefits of hemp products. “People act like I’m getting her high. Then I tell them the difference [between THC and CBD], and they start asking me questions about it. They’re like, ‘Oh, there’s no side effects?’ ”

“It’s a learning thing for me,” says Wolfe. “No one’s been teaching me how to use it, or what the right dose is for her. I’ve been having to figure this out on my own, so I’ve been going really slow. And it’s working. It really is.”