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A Sober Look at CBD

It's marketed as a miracle cure for just about everything, but what is CBD anyway?

Growth Industry | High Activity | A Sober Look at CBD | E-Wasted

Topical pain relieving balm is just one of many types of CBD-infused products now being marketed to consumers. Photo by Mario Babasa

It's happy hour at the MeloMelo kava bar in downtown Santa Cruz on a warm, early spring afternoon, and I'm looking to "wet my whistle" as Dean Martin might have said. But there isn't a drop of scotch or gin or even beer to be found here—it's not that kind of place—so I saddle up to a suitable barstool, motion to the barkeep and order a tall frosty glass of CBD-infused brew on tap.

"Blood orange or lemon ginger?" she asks.

"Lemon ginger," I say, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. It's white, fizzy, opaque, kind of like a Tom Collins without the maraschino cherry. It's also pretty refreshing.

CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, a once obscure chemical compound found in cannabis that is having its moment in the pharmacological spotlight. If chemicals were pop singers, CBD would be Cardi B.

Unlike its cousin THC, which is responsible for many of the best known psychoactive effects of marijuana, CBD is marketed as non-psychoactive. This might not be strictly true. Consuming CBD can alter one's mood, dull pain and make a user drowsy, but it won't produce the kind of head high familiar to those who have ever smoked a joint. It's not going to make jazz sound any better or make your tie-dyed Gaelic knot tapestry dance.

So what's the point of taking CBD? That depends on who you ask. Common claims include that it will reduce inflammation, help manage anxiety and combat insomnia. Some go further, touting CBD's ability to fight cancer, for example. But hard evidence is scant.

It is a truism of contemporary capitalism that markets operate on a different time horizon than science. And there is no more vivid illustration of this phenomenon than the current CBD craze.

One need not travel to Santa Cruz to sample CBD. It can now be found in hundreds of consumer products including tinctures, oils, capsules, topical creams, lip balms, salt soaks, vaporizer mists and soaps. It's been added to chocolate bars, coffee, candy and cocktails. Jack's Knob Polish is a CDB-infused "personal lubricant," and Bed Bath & Beyond carries a variety of CBD remedies—including a line of canine-oriented cannabis products sold under the brand name Dog Whisperer.

This avalanche of commercial opportunism is centered on a chemical that is still in a weird legal limbo. Almost every state in the country has some laws governing legal cannabis use, and a few allow legal use of CBD, which can be extracted from the hemp plant. A member of the cannabis family containing very little THC, hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years for a variety of practical applications, including the production of paper and textiles.

Marijuana is legal for recreational consumption in 10 states, including California. However, under the federal Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is still designated Schedule I—meaning it is highly addictive and has no medical value—unlike cocaine, a Schedule II drug that is still sometimes used as a local anesthetic during ear, nose and throat surgery.

Complicating the picture further is the recently passed federal farm bill, which legalized the production of industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive variant of cannabis (which has a noble role in early American history). The San Benito County Board of Supervisors has taken notice and is exploring opening up the region to large hemp grows.

But to what end? The only controlled study that has proven CBD's therapeutic effectiveness comes from the UK company GW Pharmaceuticals, which has developed a prescription CBD tincture called Epidiolex, recently approved for use in the US by the FDA. But that study was tightly focused only on the treatment of two rare but severe forms of epilepsy, and makes no claims on the treatment of anxiety, depression, chronic pain or any other ailments.

Josh Wurzer is a chemist and a pioneer in the field of CBD research. In 2008, he was the director of the first quality control lab measuring medical marijuana, Oakland's Steep Hill. Shortly thereafter, he and a few partners started SC (Science of Cannabis) Labs. His lab measures strains of commercially grown cannabis for a variety of organic compounds, including CBD, as well as for pathogens such as E. coli, pesticides and heavy metals.

Wurzer says the ambiguous legal status of cannabis is hampering efforts to give it the proper study that might validate the health claims behind it.

"If I'm a cannabis researcher," he says, "and I want to do any kind of research in an organization that gets federal funding, I'm very limited to the cannabinoids I have access to."

The feds maintain a farm to grow cannabis for study at, of all places, the University of Mississippi. "But the diversity of that plant material is very limited," says Wurzer.

Even if there were studies confirming CBD's potential healing properties, that doesn't mean the bag of CBD gummies you buy on Amazon is going to do anything for you. California law requires mandatory testing on all cannabis products, but that only applies to products sold in licensed dispensaries, which use companies such as SC Labs to give consumers precise chemical profiles of nearly everything they sell. Products sold at grocery stores, health food stores or on line do not necessarily use such testing, and this lack of regulatory structure has created a kind of anything-goes environment on the commercial market.

What's more, there is evidence to suggest that ingestion of CBD through the digestive system is inefficient, if not useless. "CBD has almost no oral bioavailability," is the way Wurzer puts it. He says that the most efficient ways to get CBD into the bloodstream are to inhale it, dissolve it in your mouth or administer it as a suppository.

CBD research is a rapidly evolving field and the range of possibilities for CBD's effectiveness is still wide. Wurzer has faith in the promise of CBD's potential to help with any number of medical issues. At least, he says, taking CBD is not going to hurt you. "The upside is the super-low toxicity. We have still yet to have a documented case of THC or CBD overdose leading to any kind of death. You can't say that about aspirin or ibuprofen."

Back at the MeloMelo kava bar, my bartender tells me that my 12-oz. beverage has 25 milligrams of CBD in it, which means nothing to me. When I finish my non-intoxicating drink, she lays a much more meaningful number on me. The final tab? $7 (with a tip, $8).

I left the place, as promised, with a lighter spirit, though it could have just been the effects of a lighter wallet.