It's increasingly popular with people suffering from a wide variety of maladies, from insomnia and anxiety to Crohn's disease and fibromyalgia. Some swear by it for relief from migraines, while others have tried it to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy.
Reporter Arun Venugopal suffered a herniated disc and could not find any relief. "There were so many nights when it was hard to sleep, due to the pain, and as the weeks wore on I felt desperate and willing to try anything," Venugopal said.
Despite the disparate diagnoses and needs, more people are seeking out the same drug in search of some sort of relief: CBD (cannabidiol). You may have heard of it because of an article in The New Yorker, because your local bodega has started stocking it, or because you have a friend who has started proselytizing about it. Can one product really treat so many ailments? Is CBD some sort of super medicine, or is it about as real as Simpson and Son's Revitalizing Tonic?
CBD is one of more than 80 naturally occurring active compounds found in cannabis plants. However, it is usually derived from hemp, as opposed to marijuana—the biggest difference is that CBD lacks the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, a.k.a. THC, a compound which gives weed its extra oomph (marijuana can contain up to 30% THC, hemp contains no more than 0.3% THC). In other words, CBD derived from hemp does not get you stoned, nor should it show up if you take a drug test. According to Herb, you would need to consume 1,000 to 2,000 mg of CBD a day for a drug test to pick it up—more than a bottle a day—and even then, it would be considered "a false positive." (For a more thorough explanation of how cannabidiol interacts within the body with the network of neurons called the endocannabinoid system, check out this informative High Times piece.)
As a recent industry study co-sponsored by HelloMD (a company that provides online consultations for medical cannabis patients) and market research firm Brightfield Group explained, CBD has anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, anti-psychotic, and anti-convulsant properties, but "is not felt to have any intoxicating or psychoactive" side effects. There are THC-infused CBD products as well, but those are not sold in states like New York where recreational marijuana is not yet legal.
To get technical for a moment—because it is an important detail—neurologist Ethan Russo, internationally renowned for his research on cannabis compounds and their roles in the body, cautioned in a research paper on cannabidiol misconceptions that "CBD should be preferably labeled as ‘non-intoxicating’ [rather than ‘non-psychotropic’], and lacking associated reinforcement, craving, compulsive use, etc., that would indicate a significant drug abuse liability." He's also written papers positing cannabis as an "unconventional solution to the opioid crisis."
(Courtesy of Lord Jones)
As a result, CBD has become the ultimate nexus point between the wellness industry, the burgeoning legal marijuana industry, and the alternative medicine community. It's also climbed into the zeitgeist in 2018, especially within the beauty and wellness community—celebrities such as Olivia Wilde, Busy Philips and Amy Schumer have raved about it, it has been the subject of NY Times trend pieces on beauty regimens, and Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle brand Goop offered up a guide to CBD-spiked cocktails.
Cindy Capobianco, co-founder of the trendy and much-loved CBD company Lord Jones, said that celebrity stylists such as Karla Welch and Erica Cloud use their CBD lotion on their clients' feet when they walk the red carpet, boosting awareness of the product across Hollywood. "They tried it and they realized it worked and they started carrying it in their styling kit and they started sharing it with all of their clients," she said.
"We have one woman who—[we won't name] because she has not come out publicly and talked about it—is one of the biggest musicians and female performers in the world," Capobianco added. "And she has debilitating stage fright. So she started taking one of our 5:1 gumdrops—five parts CBD to one part THC—before every single performance, and it changed her life."
And of course, it is also becoming a big business: it's available in myriad forms, as lotion, gumdrops, gummies, liquid droppers, chocolates, bath bombs, skin creams, sex lubricants, tinctures, capsules, and even pet treats. You can buy it directly online (Bluebird Botanicals is another gold standard when it comes to CBD), or visit a local health store to try out products in person. While companies are still navigating the complex legalities around marketing and selling the product, it hasn't hurt the bottom line: industry analysts predict the market in the U.S. will reach $1 billion a year by 2020. (New Frontier Data is even more bullish, predicting that the overall U.S. CBD market will increase more than 422% over the next five years to nearly $2 billion.)
"The reason why people are attaching to it so aggressively is because it really, really does work for the things it says it's going to do," said Josh Kirby, CEO of California-based Kin Slips, purveyor of cannabis and CBD sublingual strips you put under your tongue. "It's a really great anti-inflammatory agent. It's really great for not only physical relaxation, but mental and emotional relaxation. There's a huge trend right now, across all the demographics, to move away from the traditional prescription or over-the-counter type medicines that are more synthetic, and moving towards a more holistic plant-based approach. That's really what CBD not only promises, but what it's been really great at delivering on as well."
According to NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), CBD is legal in all 30 states that have legalized medical or recreational use of marijuana, and in 17 other states that have legalized some form of CBD (which includes New York). But it is not legal on the federal level, and it has not been approved by the DEA (which classifies most cannabis-related products, including CBD, as a Schedule 1 drug with a “high potential for abuse”) or, most importantly, the FDA, which has raised eyebrows among CBD skeptics. Last year, the FDA issued warning letters to four CBD companies who were "illegally selling products online that claim to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure cancer without evidence to support these outcomes."
As The Ringer pointed out, the unregulated market of CBD has led to a lot of snake oil salesmen popping up online—a 2017 University of Pennsylvania study found that nearly 70 percent of CBD products sold online are mislabeled and don't contain what they claim. This places a lot more onus on the user to thoroughly vet products on their own, which is often more difficult dealing in the online market.
Top medical reasons CBD users gave, via the HelloMD/Brightfield Study industry report
The dearth of research on CBD has led many experts to caution users not to go all-in on the hype just yet: "I think it has unique effects on the brain that offer potential across a number of potential indications, although proof of its efficacy is limited to epilepsy, schizophrenia, and spasms in multiple sclerosis (the latter is with THC)," said Dr. Orrin Devinsky, director of the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center who has been closely studying CBD for the last five years. "The explosion in popularity likely reflects a social phenomenon—combining a strong attraction to a natural product and the power of social media and bias. The ‘buzz’ far exceeds the data. Much of the buzz is ‘religion.' As Max Planck said, 'I believe God, everyone else show me the data.' There is not much data now.”
Nora D. Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addressed Congress in 2015 about potential therapeutic benefits of the substance: "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."
Devinsky noted that CBD does not appear to be habit forming or addictive ("We now have considerable evidence from human and animal studies to support this"), and like Volkow, stressed the importance of more testing: "I believe marijuana and THC do have potential medical benefits. The only path forward is to use consistent formulations (eg, pure THC at a set dose) for specific indications (eg, pain or anxiety or insomnia) and then to use a double blind placebo-controlled trial. To date, this has never been done."
"CBD may be too good to be true, or it may be true," Devinsky added. "Only science and time will tell."
I've met dozens of people in recent months who have started using CBD on a daily basis for common symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, and joint pain relief. According to that industry study, 80% of CBD users found it to be extremely effective treatment for anxiety and joint pain, in particular; 42% of users say they've stopped using traditional medications in favor of CBD to treat depression and insomnia.
"It appears to be much more effective longterm for many anxiety issues without the side effects of benzodiazepines," said Katie Gentile, a psychologist and professor in Gender Studies at John Jay College. She researched CBD online to combat anxiety, chronic back issues, and insomnia. "Having something to help me sleep, that is basically a natural oil that also is very likely to have many benefits to the body, is amazing. It is no wonder it is so controversial—it threatens the pharmaceutical control over the population."
Even without longterm data about regular usage, people swear by the immediate effects of the stuff. It's become so popular, GQ had a piece about the phenomenon of people ingesting it at work. One writer declared: "When I take one, I feel slightly but markedly better. My chair feels like it is mangling my body less. It’s harder to make a fist. It’s easier to navigate an hour or two of bullshit, which means it's easier to do my job. It doesn’t matter if anybody notices that I am 10% more pleasant, because I feel 10% more pleasant, anyway."
And for some people dealing with more serious ailments, science and time are taking too long to catch up. Krystal Hawes became aware of CBD after her father Darryle Hawes had exhausted treatment options for his stage four lung cancer. "I think there was certainly a placebo effect, but it also allowed him to relax and get rest," she said. "The side effects of chemo were intense and left him with symptoms that impeded his sleep, including hiccups and vomiting. The oil seemed to relax all of his symptoms. He took it regularly until he was no longer able to swallow. I'd recommend it for someone, even it is only provided peace of mind and respite."
This was a few years ago, before CBD was widely available or marketed in trendy health food stores. Looking back on the experience, she was most frustrated by the steps it took to procure it for her father: "For decades and decades, this medicine was not available to people who were dying," she said. "And maybe it wasn't going to heal them or cure them, but you're compounding the stress of illness with the stress of access. Just getting it makes you feel like, 'I can relax a little bit.'"
Capobianco said that she and her husband, fellow Lord Jones co-founder Rob Rosenheck, ran a collective and spent two and a half years researching the uses of CBD with patients with symptoms across the board, before they launched their business. "We don't pretend to be doctors," she said. "But I think if there's research that says it works, then it works. In my experience there's no test for being in love, do you know what I mean? When you're in love with someone you know you're in love, and if I were to say, 'we wanna do some research'—I guess there could be serotonin in your brain, and there could be ways to determine it—but when people use our product, they say that the combination of lotion and tincture brings them more relief than their prescription medication."
She said that they have been in contact with UCLA and other universities about spearheading more research and studies into CBD. And she also stresses that it is no cure-all: "There are people who are like, 'I broke my leg and the CBD didn't make me feel any better.' I'm like, that's because you have a broken leg! This isn't a miracle. Believe me, if we had a miracle we would be in a different position."
"So yeah, I totally understand [the caution] from the research side. But we're dealing with human beings, and when a human being is in pain and they use the lotion on their back or their shoulder or for their headache, and two minutes later they say, 'I feel so much better than I felt ten minutes ago,' well like, awesome. It's working."
A major recent decision by the FDA does bode well for CBD's future: in June, the FDA officially approved CBD-based Epidiolex to treat severe forms of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Although the use of that product is very narrow, "This is a very good development, and it basically underscores that there are medicinal properties to some of the cannabinoids,” Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California San Diego, told the Times. As New Cannabis Ventures wrote, this approval is likely to be “a boon for the entire category, raising interest and acceptance of the cannabinoid as being safe and therapeutic.”
And proponents like Kirby see this industry growing even beyond that of legal marijuana: "I think CBD is gonna be much more popular than THC for a long time, because it's not psychoactive," he said. "There's so many people out there who are switching from the traditional method of treating their ailments, to a more holistic, natural approach, and CBD is really, really perfect for that."
"A lot of people want to get high, and that's totally fine, but more people want to feel good and not be high than want to be high. The thing with CBD products is, you can use them all the time. You can wake up in the morning and take a CBD product. You can use it at lunch. You can use it at dinner. It's not going to affect your ability to perform your job. It's not gonna affect your ability to socialize or drive a car or anything like that."
Is CBD REALLY Legal In New York? Where Can I Get It? Will It Get Me High? These questions and more will be answered in Part 2, coming Wednesday.