“Hold it under your tongue for about 10 seconds,” a chipper sales representative told me. I was standing at the back of the Alchemist’s Kitchen, an upscale hippie apothecary on the Lower East Side, the sort of place where everyone on staff seems like they have strong opinions about sage. I’d come to test a minty oil called Plant Alchemy CBD, which claims to relieve inflammation, anxiety, and pain. I wasn’t the only one with this plan; the CBD-products kiosk was busy, with customers happily scooping up $55 candies and $65 body lotions promising to ease and soothe.
“CBD’s the new kale, the new buzzword,” Shannon Barnett told me the next day. “You see CBD in everything.”
Barnett, a California-based nurse, is the founder of Sana Sana Wellness, which has sold cannabidiol (CBD), a molecule culled from cannabis, in a variety of health and wellness products since 2014. In the four years since Barnett jumped into the market, CBD has risen from a niche treatment to a buzzy super-supplement. CBD comes from the same plant, cannabis sativa, as tetrahydrocannabinol, otherwise known as THC—the psychoactive molecule that can cause euphoria. Unlike THC, however, CBD doesn’t get people stoned. It is widely available in oil and capsule forms, while CBD-infused gumdrops, deodorant, toothpaste, moisturizers, shampoos, patches, lip balm, ghee, foot cream, chocolates, bath bombs, honey, sex lubricants, and doggie treats are all available for purchase around the country. “This is the hottest product in the history of natural products,” Josh Hendrix, director of business development for Las Vegas–based extract company CV Sciences Inc., told the audience at the Natural Products Expo West in March.
CBD has gained ground as a chic pocket of cannabis culture. Olivia Wilde praised CBD body lotion to The New York Times. Goop recently touted a list of CBD-spiked cocktails. L.A.-based company Lord Jones, which sells expensive CBD candies and creams, has partnered with Equinox, the Standard hotel, and Icelandic electronic group Sigur Ros. It prides itself on its luxe ingredients and marketing. “We want all of the edibles to be a foodie experience, apart from all the cannabinoids we’re putting in there,” Rob Rosenheck, who cofounded Lord Jones with wife Cindy Capobianco, said. “It’s a full-blown mainstream trend now.”
There’s even a burgeoning market for pets, with treats aimed at soothing anxious dogs and cats, with room to grow in more exotic animal markets. “We’ve actually tested on horses, and it had a very good therapeutic effect,” Eric Smart, CEO of Colorado-based transdermal CBD lotion company Myaderm, said. “The owner of an animal rescue sanctuary heard about CBD products and purchased ours and started giving it to a kangaroo whose name is Rufus,” Michael Harinen, the chief brand officer of Colorado-based Bluebird Botanicals, told me. “It’s been supposedly helping him out immediately, so it works on kangaroos too, I guess!”
The enthusiasm for CBD is backed up by research, although most of it is preliminary. Nora D. Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, laid out some potential therapeutic benefits when she addressed Congress in 2015. “Rigorous clinical studies are still needed to evaluate the clinical potential of CBD for specific conditions. However, pre-clinical research (including both cell culture and animal models) has shown CBD to have a range of effects that may be therapeutically useful, including anti-seizure, antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-tumor, anti-psychotic, and anti-anxiety properties,” she told Congress.
“My research area is multiple sclerosis, and I have many patients who are using CBD products. They were able to reduce other pain medication like opiates, and it definitely helps with muscle spasticity,” Colorado State University professor Thorsten Rudroff told me. Rudroff has studied how people with MS respond to CBD, and he believes that CBD should be studied further. “We need more research, especially about cannabis in general, and also about the CBD products. We don’t know, right now, how much CBD a patient should take, in which form—smoking, or edibles, or oil—it’s unknown. We don’t know the exact dosages here.”
Despite CBD’s ballooning popularity among humans and their creatures, it’s part of a new industry, rife with misinformation. Since CBD is most commonly sold as a supplement, some unscrupulous companies have sold fake oils, and it is often difficult for consumers to weed out trustworthy sellers from retailers simply trying to make money off the promise of a panacea. “There are companies that are taking advantage of ill people by marketing their products as CBD oil, when they’ve only got trace amounts of CBD,” Drug Policy Alliance staff attorney Jolene Forman told me.
Most companies selling CBD are not seeking FDA approval, as they sell their products as supplements. (One notable exception, GW Pharma, is in clinical trials for a seizure drug called Epidiolex.) In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to some major CBD producers, citing them for making unsubstantiated claims, including claims that their products could shrink or cure cancer; the FDA has also tested a variety of CBD products for the past three years and warned those companies misrepresenting how much of the molecule their tinctures contained. A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study found that nearly 70 percent of CBD products sold online do not contain what they claim to contain. Professor Rudroff, while optimistic about CBD’s potential therapeutic uses, was quick to emphasize how unregulated the market is. “When you go to a dispensary and you buy these products, you have to be very careful, because the labeling is often not correct,” he warned.
The CBD bandwagon is getting crowded, but it’s also navigating a twisty course, simultaneously fraught with legal roadblocks and too few quality-control checks. Marketing the product as a supplement instead of getting it approved as a drug allows sellers to get CBD to people more easily, but it also puts the onus on the buyer to figure out which products are worthwhile and which are not. This, ironically, creates a sometimes anxious situation for people looking for simple and relaxing ways to get well.
Although CBD has gained momentum in the past few years, the cannabis plant from which it is derived has been used for a long time. (When it is cultivated with low levels of THC, for use in making textiles and other non-medicinal products, cannabis is often referred to as “hemp.”) “When people came from England and settled in Jamestown, all the settlers were mandated to grow hemp, and it was used for textiles, sails, rope, and paper. By the 1800s, cannabis tincture was available at almost every pharmacy in the United States, and people who had pain would use it regularly,” Rosenheck noted. While cannabis was a popular remedy at first, it became stigmatized in the United States during the early 20th century, as the name “marijuana” grew more popular. Many cannabis historians link the shift in attitude to anti-immigration campaigns, which demonized immigrants’ use of cannabis after the country received an influx of immigrants following the Mexican revolution. “There was a wave of xenophobia, and cannabis was made illegal in 1937.” (When cannabis is produced and sold for its high THC content, it is often referred to as “marijuana.” Many pro-cannabis advocates stress that the term’s xenophobic origins make it antiquated and misleading.)
Attitudes towards cannabis have been softening since California became the first state to legalize medical use in 1996, kicking off a decades-long loosening of state laws. Eight states have broadly legalized recreational use, while the majority of states permit medical cannabis in at least some circumstances. Support for widespread legalization has steadily risen. “Weed moms” are a coveted marketing demographic. In this climate, CBD seems especially appealing, a concoction holding mellow promise.
Still, even though CBD does not inebriate, its legal status has been contentious, precisely because it is so closely linked with the reputation of whole cannabis plant. “There’s been challenge after challenge,” Harinen said. “Different governing agencies have had different opinions about whether CBD products are actually legal or not.” Many CBD sellers, like Bluebird Botanicals, ship their products across state lines on the basis that the 2014 Farm Bill permits the sale of cannabis with less than .3 percent THC, classifying it as “industrial hemp.” Other sellers, like Sana Sana Wellness, source their CBD from cannabis with higher percentages of THC, which means that they must sell under the stricter guidelines for medical and recreational cannabis in their states. (Barnett, for example, can only sell in California.)
This February, small business owners in Tennessee found out the hard way how confused some law enforcement can be about CBD, even when it comes from cannabis strains classified as hemp. Twenty-three stores were raided for selling CBD products as part of a sting known as “Operation Candy Crush.” Nineteen employees were hit with felony drug-selling charges, and the district attorney filed to declare the businesses as “public nuisances,” padlocking them for weeks. However, the charges were soon dropped after authorities realized they could not prove a crime had been committed, as there was no way to tell the difference chemically between CBD from an arguably legal source (hemp) and from a THC-rich source.
On April 2, Indiana-based filmmaker and soccer coach Mamadou Ndiaye found out that charges for marijuana possession, brought against him in 2017, were finally dropped. He had been arrested for carrying 2 ounces of CBD oil in his car. Local news station WTHR had tested the brand that Ndiaye had carried at a third-party lab and found it contained 0 percent THC, and published a series of investigations into the confusion in Indiana about CBD’s legality, prompting state legislators to introduce a bill clarifying that any CBD with less than .3 percent THC was, indeed, legal in the state.
Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, which means it believes it has no medical benefit and “high potential for abuse.” It also means that the DEA can classify all cannabis as illegal, except for industrial hemp grown within the parameters of pilot programs from research institutions and state departments of agriculture. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, along with his junior senator Rand Paul, is one of the leading voices for broader legalization of domestic hemp production, as Kentucky is a major producer of the plant. McConnell recently introduced the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 in a bid to ease federal restrictions on growing the crop.
The conflation between all cannabis and THC-heavy “marijuana” strains puts CBD producers in a legal grey area and has kept CBD from the shelves of many major retailers. “A lot of the larger natural retailers and supermarkets are not interested in taking on CBD products or hemp extract products,” Harinen said. “They’re a little too hot to touch right now and they want to wait until things settle down.”
In addition to the trouble caused by murky and changing laws, there are disputes within the CBD industry about whether CBD products derived from low-THC hemp are as effective as those derived from cannabis with higher levels of THC, as well as concerns over the quality of hemp imported from abroad. “Hemp isn’t rich in CBD. It’s not an optimal source,” Barnett told me, arguing that the product she sells through Sana Sana Wellness, which is regulated like medical and recreational cannabis, is different than the hemp-based CBD sold across the country. But Bluebird Botanicals pushes back on the idea that there is always a real gulf. “The plants that we grow are actually remarkably similar to medical or recreational cannabis plants,” says Michael Harinen. “It’s just that they’ve been selectively bred down in their THC level.” Both Harinen and Barnett advocate for CBD products that have been sourced from whole plants rather than CBD in isolated form, following the popular “entourage effect” theory, which posits that CBD is the most effective when it is taken in conjunction with the secondary cannabinoids and at least trace amounts of THC that come from the plant.
No matter where they stand on CBD extraction methods, all the sellers I talked to emphasized that the industry would benefit from more conscientious regulation. “It is a very real concern,” Rosenheck said.
I left the Alchemist’s Kitchen after smearing a sample of $60 CBD salve on my hands, in addition to testing the oil. I felt relaxed, but I had no way of knowing whether I was relaxed because the CBD was working or because I thought the CBD was working and had just spent the past hour in a patchouli-scented cafe sipping organic kombucha. I tasted Lord Jones’s delicious and pricey gumdrops over the weekend, savoring each candy while also cursing the fact that the treats, meant to promote “a calm sense of well-being” were $6 a pop. Again, I felt relatively chilled out, but I had no way of measuring how much of my mood was chemically derived versus the simple fact that I was snacking on bougie candies on a beautiful weekend. (The CBD did nothing for my chronic insomnia.)
The wellness industry certainly wants to believe that it works. Market forecasts are rosy; in December 2016, Forbes reported an expected 700 percent spike in sales by 2020, to a nearly $2.1 billion industry of its own. According to California-based cannabis delivery service Eaze, “exceptionally high demand” for CBD inspired the company to quadruple its product offerings for 2018. The Brightfield Group, a marketing research agency, released a report on CBD’s potential in 2017, outlining the high level of satisfaction regular users of high-THC strains had. For both anxiety and joint pain, 80 percent of people Brightfield surveyed said it was a “very or extremely effective treatment.”
There are still some problems to solve. Until more states loosen their cannabis laws, people who live in states where recreational use is still illegal will not be able to test out whether higher-THC products work for them; until more research and regulation is instituted, the CBD market is still a frequently perplexing place. But for a salve hailed for not getting people high, the ceiling for its applications may be well beyond our view. In the meantime, the fancy lotions and luxury candies are enough to put me in a hopeful—if not entirely enlightened—mood.