Is CBD Legal? Does It Even Work? It’s Time to Clear the Haze of Confusion Surrounding the “Miracle” Ingredient

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CBD (cannabidiol) is basically the Meghan Markle of the wellness world: Newly minted supplement-shelf royalty, it’s getting shout-outs absolutely everywhere right now, thanks to its everywoman appeal. (Insomnia? Period cramps? Uncomfortable shoes? CBD’s said to help with all of these things, and then some.)

But beyond its cool-girl façade, there’s still a lot that most of us don’t know about CBD—a key compound found in cannabis that bestows many of the plant’s medicinal properties, minus the high. But once you’ve chosen to add it to your wellness routine and start to research the various CBD products on offer, you’re forced to answer a lot of questions without obvious answers. Like, is there a difference between CBD sourced from hemp vs. marijuana? Does it matter whether you’re getting it from a drink, a lotion, or a gourmet meal? What’s the deal if it doesn’t seem to be working for you (is it just snake oil)? And is it even legal where you live?

Head spinning yet? Consider this your complete buyers’ guide to CBD, filled with expert advice on navigating some of the, um, hazier aspects of 2018's most buzzed-about supplement.

Here are all of your most burning CBD questions, answered by experts.

All your CBD questions, answered
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How do I know if CBD is right for me?

A big part of CBD’s appeal is that it's said to assist with a super broad range of wellness concerns. According to Cannabis Feminist Jessica Assaf, co-founder of Hempia, its multitasking abilities lie in the fact that CBD interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is found throughout the human body's nervous system, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune system.

“When external forces disturb the body’s homeostasis, the endocannabinoid system helps our body push back and regain balance,” she says. Cannabis compounds like CBD are thought to assist in this balancing act, which can be disrupted by an unhealthy diet, stress, or toxin exposure, by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the body.

“If you are in perfect health, you probably don't need cannabinoids."—Jessica Assaf, Cannabis Feminist and cofounder of Hempia

That said, it’s a myth that everyone should supplement with CBD. If you’re generally healthy, says Assaf, you may find that it doesn’t do much for you. “We do not always need cannabinoids all of the time,” she stresses. “If you are in perfect health, you probably don't need cannabinoids, because they are only important when you are ‘out of balance.’” But if you’re experiencing issues with any of the aforementioned systems—and, honestly, who isn’t?— it may be worth asking your doctor whether CBD could benefit you.

All your CBD questions, answered
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Okay, that sounds promising. But what does the science say?

Despite all of the fanfare around CBD, scientists are still in the early stages of studying it at a clinical level. “There is very little data from rigorous scientific research on the therapeutic effects of CBD,” says J. H. Atkinson, MD, of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego. That doesn't mean it doesn't live up to the hype—it just means more clinical research needs to be done to make those arguments ironclad.

Part of this is because of how cannabis is regulated (or not...) in the United States, says Assaf. “Historically, it has been very difficult to initiate and execute clinical trials in this country because of the volatile regulatory landscape and the (mis)classification of cannabis as a schedule-1 drug with 'no perceived medical benefits,'” she says. (This class of controlled substance also includes drugs such as LSD, heroin, and ecstasy.)

This is changing, however. “Over the past few years there have been hundreds of CBD-related studies across dozens of countries and institutions. Many of them go unnoticed, but they do exist,” Assaf points out. During Well+Good's recent TALKS panel on CBD, Chris Sayegh, owner and head chef of The Herbal Chef, added that there are many more studies conducted in the U.S. than the general public knows about as well, but because they're carried out by private companies, the results are confidential.

“There is very little data from rigorous scientific research on the therapeutic effects of CBD.”
—J. H. Atkinson, MD

Some of this early research indicates CBD may have the potential to treat conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, skin issues, and pain. However, many of these studies involve small sample sizes or animal—rather than human—subjects. Evidence is also conflicting in some cases, says Dr. Atkinson. “One study suggested CBD might be a useful addition when given with conventional antipsychotic medications in the treatment of schizophrenia; another study found no benefit,” he says by way of example.

Even so, now that the FDA has approved a CBD-based medication to treat epilepsy in children, more rigorous research into the compound’s health benefits is likely to be on the horizon. (One example: UCSD’s CMCR has been funded to conduct a clinical trial of CBD for autism in children.) “In 2016, the U.S. Pharmacopeia initiated a process that may eventually return cannabis to its [official list of medicinal drugs],” says Assaf. “Now, it's up to us to make the research more accessible to the mainstream consumer.” Bottom line: Watch this space.

All your CBD questions, answered
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Hemp vs. cannabis—does it matter where my CBD is sourced from?

Read the label of any CBD product and you’ll probably see that the active ingredient comes from one of two plants—hemp or marijuana. The difference between the two is simple, says Dr. Atkinson.

“The federal government defines hemp as a cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by weight,” he says. (THC is the compound in cannabis that makes you high—and 0.3 percent THC isn't enough to impact your mental state.) “A cannabis plant with a greater THC content is what is often termed marijuana.” Essentially, low-THC, hemp-derived CBD grown according to industrial hemp farming regulations is widely known to be legal everywhere. (Although that’s not always technically the case—more on that in a minute.)

"Pure CBD, whether derived from cannabis or hemp or made in a lab, is ultimately the same molecule and will have the same effect."—Jeff Chen, MD

When comparing the CBD found in hemp and marijuana, there’s really no difference, says Jeff Chen, MD, founder and director of UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative. "Pure CBD, whether derived from cannabis or hemp or made in a lab, is ultimately the same molecule and will have the same effect," he says. Adds Cannuka cofounder Michael Bumgarner, who has a background in farming (and was also a panelist at the Well+Good TALK): "A molecule is composed of a specific arrangement and configuration of atoms with a specific bonding pattern. The strain of cannabis plant, regardless of its percentage of CBD and THC, does not change these fundamental truths."

But unless you’re buying your CBD products from a dispensary, you’re never going to encounter CBD sourced from marijuana. (The kind you can buy online and in regular retail stores is always sourced from hemp.) “CBD derived from the cannabis plant may still have high levels of THC,” points out Nick Danias, cofounder of The Pottery, a dispensary in Los Angeles. So yes, some CBD products can still get you high, despite reports to the contrary.

All your CBD questions, answered
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What about whole-plant CBD vs. CBD isolate?

Two other buzzy phrases you’re likely to see when CBD shopping are “full-spectrum” and “isolate.” This essentially has to do with how the CBD product is formulated—CBD isolate is shorthand for the CBD molecule standing on its own, while whole-plant CBD contains other compounds from the cannabis plant as well.

There's quite a bit of debate in the industry right now around whether one is superior to the other, and there hasn't been enough research to settle the argument definitively. "I hear from scientists on both sides," says Bumgarner. "Some say there is no difference, because once you extract CBD, our bodies process it on an individual basis. The other side says full-spectrum is the only way to go."

He personally chose to use a CBD isolate for Cannuka's skin-care products, because he says this makes it easier to control the dose and purity of the molecule from a manufacturing perspective. "Taking it down to the isolate allows us to make sure the CBD we’re putting in batch one is the same as batch 101," he says. Studies have shown that CBD in isolation may, indeed, be helpful when applied to skin cells, reducing sebum production and inflammation, for example. (Bumgarner admits, however, that he isn't sure whether CBD isolate would have the same impact when taken orally or for non-skin-related conditions.)

In the other camp, Assaf believes full-spectrum CBD products are likely to be more beneficial, from a health perspective. “While CBD may have some light benefits as a single molecule, it needs the other active compounds of the plant for optimal results,” she argues, noting that these include other cannabinoids and terpenes, which give cannabis its distinctive aroma. “These active compounds modulate the effects of one another, reduce the side effects of one constituent while enhancing the effects of another. That's why it's so important to choose a whole-plant, full-spectrum hemp extract.”

A 2015 animal study showed full-spectrum CBD extract to be significantly more effective in treating inflammatory conditions than “pure” CBD molecules.

An oft-cited 2015 animal study backed up this theory, showing full-spectrum CBD extract to be significantly more effective in treating inflammatory conditions than “pure” CBD molecules, when taken internally. That said, the effects of a given CBD product will vary based on which other cannabinoids (THC and CBD aren't the only ones—there are at least 113 known cannabinoids) and terpenes are present in the formula, says Dr. Chen. "There are differences in the other compounds present alongside the CBD, hence why there could be a difference in effect between the cannabis extract or the hemp extract," he points out. Figuring out the best option for you is a matter of trial and error.

High levels of THC, however, don’t necessarily need to be part of the mix, says Assaf. “There are certain medical conditions and instances that require THC for optimal results,” she says, noting that pain and nausea relief are two examples. “But generally, we believe the hemp species provides all of the benefits of cannabis and more.” (However, Dr. Chen adds, this hasn't really been studied clinically, so there's no way to confirm or deny that theory.)

All your CBD questions, answered
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So CBD products without THC are legal everywhere, right?

When it comes to the legality of CBD products, things are a lot murkier than the media makes them sound. “It’s complicated. There’s no way to get around it,” says Daniel Shortt, a Seattle-based attorney who works with companies in the cannabis industry. “The idea that CBD is just legal in all 50 states is, at best, an oversimplification of the current status of the law.”

Here’s the deal: All products made from the stalks and seeds of the hemp plant are legal everywhere, and have been for a long time now—think, the hemp seeds and culinary hemp oil you put on your salads. “The problem with that is the mature stalks and seeds don’t have a ton of CBD or any other cannabinoid in them,” says Shortt, adding that the flowers of the plant are where most of the good stuff hangs out.

The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill allowed farmers to start growing high-CBD hemp strains, which are often used to make the CBD products that are so popular today. “The Farm Bill allows states to implement pilot research programs and allows for the cultivation of industrial hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC,” explains Shortt. “Protection isn’t limited to the [stalks and seeds] of the plant with industrial hemp. Now, you have industrial hemp that can be bred for high-CBD strains—and because of this trend, every hemp farmer is going for as much CBD as possible.”

But there’s still quite a bit of contradiction between government agencies regarding the law, because states are creating their own regulations about what’s legal and what isn’t when it comes to CBD. “You’ve got a quilt of different regulatory approaches, and every state has a different nuance,” says Shortt. Many of them are surprisingly strict. “Even though Washington was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, it doesn’t actually allow for the processing of industrial hemp intended for human consumption,” he says.

“The idea that CBD is just legal in all 50 states is, at best, an oversimplification of the current status of the law.”—Daniel Shortt, attorney

California may be heading in the same direction. Just this month, the state’s department of public health said that CBD from hemp can’t be added to “food, drink, confection, condiment, or chewing gum.” (Marijuana-derived CBD, however, is legal when sold through the appropriate dispensary channels.) “Until the FDA rules that industrial-hemp-derived CBD oil and CBD products can be used as a food or California makes a determination that they are safe to use for human and animal consumption, CBD products are not an approved food, food ingredient, food additive, or dietary supplement,” the agency said in a statement. Whether the state will actually devote resources to enforcing this, however, still remains to be seen—especially because it directly contradicts language in California’s Industrial Hemp Program literature that states “every preparation” of the plant is legal.

But while California may be surprisingly strict in its CBD regulation, other states you might not expect are embracing CBD, says Shortt. “You have a state like Indiana, which is not friendly to marijuana, that’s actually taking an active approach in regulating CBD,” he says. “They have this fully robust regulatory framework as to how CBD products are to be labeled—the batch number, manufacture date, level of CBD.”

This is obviously creating a ton of confusion for makers and sellers of CBD products, but a breakthrough may be in sight if the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 is passed this year. “It would still allow states to take different approaches, but we’d have a clearer baseline of what’s legal and it would allow for expansion of the already vastly expanding CBD market,” says Shortt. “It’s a really important moment because the government is acknowledging the cannabis plant has medical value.” Until then, reference your state’s laws to find out what’s allowable where you live.

All your CBD questions, answered
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Good news! I can freely buy CBD products in my state. But do some formulations—oils vs. topicals vs. tinctures—work better than others?

Finding your perfect CBD match is really just a matter of testing out different formulations and finding what works best for you, our experts say. “You can experiment with low doses of CBD oil or cream to understand how your body reacts and adjust if needed,” says Danias. (There are very few side effects associated with CBD, but you should still talk to your doctor before using it, to ensure it doesn’t interact with any meds you’re taking.)

In general, says Assaf, there are a few guidelines you can follow. “If you are experiencing gut issues or overall inflammation, a tincture will target the issue more effectively than a topical,” she says. “If you are struggling with muscle pain, soreness, or skin irritation, a topical would be best. If you want to tackle stress or anxiety, a vape might be easier for you.”

In the future, expect to see even more advanced and effective CBD options enter the market. For instance, Kush Queen founder Olivia Alexander recently launched the Defynt Anti-Serum, a CBD facial serum made using nanotechnology, which is said to allow the product to penetrate more deeply into skin. Hempia is also focusing on innovation, says Assaf. “We are discovering the importance of extraction method, consistency, dose, and in some cases, nanotechnology to ensure the cannabinoids break through the skin barrier in topical applications,” she says.

All your CBD questions, answered
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I tried CBD, but it just didn’t work for me. What gives?

One of the trickiest things about using CBD is that its effects are very individualized. “I don’t believe we know whether CBD works, whether it works for some people or not others, or for some conditions but not others,” says Dr. Atkinson. And until more research is done on CBD, specifically, we won’t be able to definitively answer these questions.

It also doesn’t help that there’s no nationwide consensus as to what dose or concentration is most helpful, from a therapeutic perspective. “There is not enough scientific evidence backed by the federal government to accurately detail out dosing procedures,” explains Danias of The Pottery. Adds Alexander: “It’s all about the ingredients, dosage, and concentration of CBD—and a lot of CBD products do not even specify how much CBD is in the product. Customers should expect brands to label the amount of CBD, and consumers should not invest in products that don't."

That might not be enough to ensure you're getting a legit product, however. A 2017 study by Penn Medicine researchers found that up to 70 percent of CBD products may actually be mislabeled. The team analyzed 84 different CBD products from undisclosed brands and found that 42 percent of them contained more CBD than advertised; 26 percent contained less; and some also contained a “significant” amount of THC, despite not being labeled as such. “The biggest implication is that many of these patients may not be getting the proper dosage,” said Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, the lead author of the study. “They’re either not getting enough for it to be effective or they’re getting too much.” (Excess CBD can also cause the product to be ineffective, research shows.)

A 2017 study by Penn Medicine researchers found that up to 70 percent of CBD products may actually be mislabeled.

Governments are starting to crack down on this. “California is instituting a program of testing products sold by licensed dispensaries, to ensure that the label describes what actually is in the product,” says Dr. Atkinson. Yet it’s still up to you to research the products you’re buying and making sure they’re coming from reputable manufacturers. And with no single third-party resource available to compile this info, doing your due diligence means reading the fine print and Googling the brand's founders.

“I use the same values and practice for buying CBD as I do for food and personal care products: Ingredients matter, know your founders, buy from companies with a mission beyond profit, and demand transparency from seed to soil,” says Assaf. “Choose a whole-plant, full-spectrum product that has been extracted without harmful solvents like butane, by the cleanest methods possible. Demand the full cannabinoid profile. Many companies are selling snake oil, so it is critical that we set higher standards for the industry moving forward.” No pun intended.

Another reason to research your CBD products: Fake ones are making people sick. Plus, here's a little more guidance on how to find the dose that's right for you

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