Navigating the world of CBD is tricky—mostly because there's not even a map yet.
Science has known about cannabidiol since the 1940s. But in the era of reefer madness, scientific studies were rare. And with cannabis driven to the black market, there wasn't going to be much demand for a substance that doesn't actually get you high. It's similar to what happened with alcohol in the early 20th century: During Prohibition, bootleggers were making bathtub gin, not craft beer.
It's only been in the past few years that research into CBD has really ramped up, but even now, studies remain hamstrung by its murky legal status. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the production of hemp—cannabis bred for fiber production rather than the resin that gets you blitzed—and included highly specific provisions to allow the manufacture and sale of hemp-derived CBD products. (In Oregon, that's the kind you'll find for sale outside state-licensed dispensaries.) But in the eyes of the federal government, CBD, like cannabis itself, remains classified as a Schedule I drug.
In short, it's sort of a bureaucratic clusterfuck right now.
But clearly, none of this has stopped CBD from growing into a billion-dollar business. So in an attempt to get answers to some really basic questions, we reached out to two local experts: Anna Symonds, director of East Fork Cultivars' CBD Certified program, and Zoe Sigman, program director for the California-based nonprofit Project CBD. As we found out, though, when it comes to CBD, there's no such thing as a "basic" question.
What do we actually know about CBD's medical benefits?
Well, it sort of depends on how you define "know."
By the standards of Western medicine, the answer is "very little." As with the cannabis plant itself, years of prohibition have stalled research into CBD's therapeutic properties. While preclinical and observational data suggest cannabidiol is effective in treating anxiety and neuropathic pain, such as that associated with fibromyalgia, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies—the scientific gold standard—have been few.
But of course, lack of research does not prove a negative.
"What I don't like about the way this is talked about sometimes, especially by people who are dismissive or anti-cannabis or -CBD, is that they'll say something like, 'There's no evidence to show,' but what they're really saying is, 'Studies haven't been done yet on whether,'" Symonds says. "They plant the language to make it sound like there's evidence that CBD doesn't [have medical benefits], but really there's not enough research showing a lot of things either way."
But progress is being made. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Epidiolex, a seizure medication containing cannabidiol as a primary ingredient, and the resulting clinical trials showed CBD as an effective treatment for two rare forms of epilepsy. And in countries with more relaxed attitudes toward medical cannabis, such as Israel, "phase three" clinical trials—that is, studies performed on people rather than rodents or in Petri dishes—are being conducted.
Should CBD be considered truly "non-psychoactive"?
A lot of what's written about CBD uses that term, but it's not accurate.
"Scientifically speaking, a psychoactive substance is something that interacts with the nervous system to produce a change in mood or behavior. And CBD does do that," Symonds says. "The issue with that term, 'psychoactive,' is that it's associated with a euphoria or a high or this very altered mental state—I guess the keyword is 'very.' CBD alters emotional and mental states, but more subtly."
The preferred nomenclature, then, is "non-intoxicating"—meaning, it can help tamp down your anxiety in a stressful situation, but won't leave you giggling uncontrollably at your own fingers.
What's the difference between the CBD products I get from a dispensary and those at, say, New Seasons?
In the most basic terms, the stuff you'll find in a dispensary is going to be a full-spectrum product—that is, it contains a broad range of the plant's other natural cannabinoids, including THC and many of the terpenes. Outside a licensed weed store, CBD is derived from hemp and contains, by law, less than 0.3 percent THC by volume.
But the source material isn't the only difference.
If you're getting CBD from a dispensary, it will have been tested for potency and purity, as required by the state. But beyond the FDA prohibiting companies from advertising unverified health claims about their products, the hemp-derived CBD market is basically unregulated, and that means there are a lot of products of dubious value occupying store shelves and floating around online. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers independently tested 84 products and found that fewer than 1 in 3 contained the amount of CBD listed on the label, while 20 percent contained enough THC to turn up on a drug test.
"And that's to say nothing of contaminants, which can be common, especially with imported hemp," Symonds says. "China grows over half the world's industrial hemp, and they don't have the environmental and consumer safety laws we have. So there's no regulation about that."
How do I avoid getting ripped off, or worse?
Other than going to a dispensary, you mean?
In this "Wild West" period of CBD consumption, the onus is pretty much entirely on consumers to protect themselves—namely, by asking companies for third-party-certified lab results.
"It's a pain in the butt," Sigman says. "But time and time again, it's the best advice I have for people. Because if they test their product to the standard of Oregon labs, then you'll also have a pesticide screen, and that's an important factor too, because of the bioaccumulation of the cannabis plant. Any markers like that—that the company has done their due diligence and is making sure what they say is in their product is in their product, and that the materials they use are high quality and safe to consume—are good markers."
If that seems like too much work, there are other telltale signs whether a company can be trusted or not. A good one is if the product is sourced from a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified hemp farm. An indication to avoid a product is if the label claims the CBD was derived from hemp-seed oil—that isn't actually a thing.
"Hemp seeds don't have any CBD in them," Symonds says. "So it's nutritious, but they're not getting what they paid for."
I've tried CBD before and didn't feel anything. Does that mean the stuff I got was bunk?
Could be. But when it comes to experiencing tangible effects from CBD, there are many variables.
According to Symonds, the human endocannabinoid system—the biological network of neurotransmitters that allow us to experience the effects of cannabis—is as individual as a fingerprint. Everyone has receptors located in different parts of the body, with varying levels of sensitivity. While there is a belief that you can "train" your body to become more sensitive to CBD, by taking increasing amounts over a period of time, Symonds says there's not much science yet to fully support that claim.
Along those same lines, there is also a growing belief in what's known as the entourage effect—the idea that CBD works better in tandem with THC and other cannabinoids. So the stuff you get at a dispensary is going to be more effective than whatever you're buying at New Seasons or Walgreens.
And then there's the matter of sheer dosage.
"Anecdotally, it seems like people need to consume—and this is like just sort of very ballpark figure—like 10 to 30 milligrams to feel anything at all," Sigman says. "And it's subtle, right? It's not intoxicating, so you're not going to feel high. If you take a lot of it, like a lot a lot, you can feel kind of loose, like you're getting out of a hot tub."
What it ultimately comes down to, says Sigman, is the reason you're taking CBD in the first place. Are you just trying to unwind after a long day? Then you're less likely to feel something than someone taking it specifically to ease pain or combat feelings of anxiousness.
"For a lot of people who are using CBD to manage anxiety, I imagine it's less of 'I feel euphoric' than 'I don't feel anxiety anymore,'" Sigman says. "It's the absence of the thing rather than something else."
Should I be giving CBD to my pets?
Again, the research is lacking—Sigman says she's seen only one observational study about the effect of CBD on dogs, and it suggested it can be effective in treating the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Overall, though, even less is known about the canine endocannabinoid system than we do about our own.
In terms of safeness, however, Sigman says it appears dogs can safely consume cannabinoids, as long as they're not administered via something their bodies can't process, like chocolate. It's important to be mindful of dosage, she adds. But many early cannabis studies in the 1960s and '70s were conducted on dogs, and they ended up being fine.
"We know massive quantities of cannabinoids are totally fine for dogs, because they were given phenomenal quantities and they lived," Sigman says. "They slept a lot, but they lived."