Gummies, tinctures, salves, and pills. Lip balm, toothpicks, shampoo, and lube. CBD is in practically everything these days. And if you listen to the hype, this nonpsychoactive compound found in various strains of cannabis can cure just about anything, from pain to depression to insomnia. Last year, CBD sales in the U.S. surpassed $600 million. By 2022 they will hit nearly $22 billion, according to estimates by the Brightfield Group, a Chicago research firm. But is CBD the panacea consumers are being sold? Is taking it even safe? And is it legal? We tapped researchers and industry experts to answer all those questions and more.
First Off, What Is It?
Unless you’re invested in a CBD company—and let’s be honest, that’s entirely possible given how many companies are rushing into the market—you’d be forgiven for not knowing that CBD is an acronym. It stands for cannabidiol, a chemical compound that can be extracted from marijuana and hemp plants, two kinds of cannabis. The extracted resin can be put in almost anything: oils, salves, edibles, shampoo, deodorant—you name it.
Will I Get High If I Take It?
No. Well, you’re not supposed to. Again, CBD is extracted from cannabis plants. There’s no chance of getting stoned if you’re taking CBD derived from hemp, which has only trace amounts of THC, the chemical compound in cannabis that produces a high. CBD products made from marijuana plants still contain some THC, though, and there might be enough to get you a little stoned.
What Does It Do Then?
No one really knows. How CBD interacts with the human brain and body is a bit of a mystery. One theory holds that CBD increases levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that influences a host of human functions, including mood, appetite, and pain. Another possibility is that CBD prevents the destruction of endocannabinoids, which help regulate, among other things, inflammation, a culprit in hundreds of diseases.
Whatever the mechanism, CBD does seem to help relieve certain ailments. In June 2018, the FDA approved Epidiolex, a CBD tincture, as a treatment for Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes, two severe childhood seizure disorders. Recent testing has also found that CBD significantly reduced seizure rates in patients with tuberous sclerosis complex, a disease that causes tumors to form in the brain and other organs. Brazilian scientists have found that CBD reduces anxiety. A study published in May by the American Journal of Psychiatry found that heroin addicts who were given CBD experienced significantly reduced heroin cravings. And researchers at King’s College in London discovered that giving patients with a high risk of psychosis 600 milligrams of CBD helped normalize parts of the brain that become dysfunctional during psychotic episodes. These are just a few of the many promising, early-stage studies into the effects of CBD. But again, these are all early-stage studies, so we don’t know how effective it is or what the right dosage might be.
So Why Is It Everywhere?
Until 2018, cannabis, along with heroin and ecstasy (to name a few), was considered a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to produce, sell, or use. But last December, President Trump signed a bill legalizing industrial hemp farming. The new law allowed for the nationwide sale of CBD extracted from hemp, as long as it contained less than 0.3 percent THC. Within months, CBD products appeared on shelves in CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Nordstrom, and GNC, as well as on the sites of hundreds of online retailers. Even Carl’s Jr., the fast-food chain, sold a CBD-infused burger as a marketing ploy. Celebrity endorsers, including golfer Bubba Watson, Mike Tyson, and Lamar Odom, began promoting and even selling CBD products, as did Gwyneth Paltrow on her massively popular Goop website.
Is It Safe?
Good question. Because cannabis was banned for so long, CBD hasn’t undergone rigorous enough testing to know if taking it regularly might be good for you—or terribly bad. “There is no data on toxicity,” says Daniele Piomelli, the director of the University of California Irvine Center for the Study of Cannabis. “Drugs have a strange way of coming back to hurt you, especially if you use them for a very long time. If you take aspirin for a week, it’s a great drug. If you take it for two months, you’ll need to replace your stomach.”
A recent animal study found that three-quarters of mice that ingested a human-equivalent dosage of Epidiolex were dead or dying within four days, with many of them suffering from signs of liver damage. More research into the cause of this is, obviously, needed.
Ziva Cooper, research director for UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative, also worries about people freely dosing up on CBD without any guidelines. “When a drug is investigated,” she says, “it goes through very thorough testing to look at potential side effects and how it might impact other drugs people are taking. But none of that testing has been done on CBD, except in the case of Epidiolex.”
Another concern is quality control. Hemp farmers often use pesticides, and some CBD products have been found to contain heavy metals and potentially dangerous microbes. Colorado is one of only a few states with firm quality-control guidelines. And the U.S. Hemp Authority screens participating manufacturers for toxins. (If you do buy CBD products, they have a label from the Hemp Authority showing that companies comply with strict testing guidelines.)
Is It Really Worth the Risk?
This is not a popular take, but at this point probably not. It may be effective, or you might be spending a lot of money for a placebo effect. Granted, that may be worth it for some people. But at worst, taking regular amounts of untested CBD products could lead to serious health concerns.
Why Do People Swear By It?
Much of the hype is based entirely on anecdotes—people overcoming insomnia, clearing up their acne, and even managing their pain after shattering bones, all through CBD products. None of this is rooted in science yet, but you’ll have a hard time convincing people otherwise. And it really could be working for them, but we simply don’t know that yet.
How Much Should I, Or Can I, Take?
“The amounts of CBD found in commercial products—maybe one gram in an entire bottle of oil—touted to be this or that, are probably too tiny to be pharmacologically active,” says Daniele Piomelli, of the University of California. “Studies show that it takes between 600 milligrams to a gram of CBD each day to have any biological affect on people.” But if you take that much, then you have to start worrying about potential side effects.
Can I Travel With It?
Only if it’s CBD derived from hemp. If your CBD comes from marijuana plants, you’re subject to various state laws regulating marijuana, and the TSA may confiscate it at the security checkpoint.
What’s Next for CBD?
Nearly 100 clinical trials are underway, including an in-depth look at how CBD affects pain, which is being conducted by Ziva Cooper at UCLA and will take a year to complete. For better or worse, the FDA is considering whether to approve CBD as a dietary supplement and food additive, and the industry is hopeful that it might happen in a year or two. And we may be on the brink of an answer about how CBD works and whether it’s safe, thanks to all the interest—and let’s be honest, money—in CBD.
“Many pharmaceutical companies have a motivation to do the research,” says Piomelli. “But it’s a tough nut to crack. It could be up to luck, or it could be tomorrow.”
A Buyer’s Guide to CBD
Four things to look for when shopping for CBD.
- Find the Hemp Authority label. This ensures that it’s been tested by an independent lab and is free of heavy metals or dangerous microbes.
- Buy only hemp-extracted CBD. Marijuana-derived CBD products often contain higher levels of THC and are illegal in states that haven’t decriminalized it.
- Look for the THC percentage. It should say something like “0.3 percent or less,” which means it won’t get you high.
- Know the dosage. Every product should say how much CBD is in each serving. Despite recommendations often listed on the bottles, nobody really knows what a safe dosage is yet.
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