A kissing cousin to pot is showing up in your coffee, candy and chocolate bars.
Companies are selling a growing number of products that contain cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical found in hemp. It’s being added to everything from gumdrops to beverages, as marketers claim benefits such as pain relief and stress reduction.
Proponents say CBD gives users a wash of calm but is “non-psychoactive”: It doesn’t produce a high like marijuana, hemp’s sister in the cannabis plant family. Consumers credit CBD with benefits such as anxiety relief and inflammation reduction, but researchers say it’s unclear what causes those effects—or even whether they are real. The legal status of CBD products is often murky too.
PHOTO: HUMAR MIRANDA
They are sold on the margins of the big-box retail establishment and are typically found in health food stores, boutiques and regional store chains. Lord Jones CBD gumdrops sell for $45 in boutiques, spas and natural foods stores. A Veggimins chocolate bar with 100 milligrams of CBD retails for $25 at health food and grocery stores. A cup of “flower power” CBD coffee at Moorenko’s Ice Cream Cafe in Silver Spring, Md., costs $5.95. A counter display promises it “will not make you fail a drug test.”
“It’s like taking a Xanax without the Xanax,” says Stein Willanger, a 38-year-old event producer in Los Angeles. He takes a peppermint-flavored CBD oil purchased over the phone anywhere from once to three times a day, sometimes after a workout, other times before bedtime. “My shoulders relax and there’s an easiness that overcomes you.”
Alexandra Coppola, a 27-year-old server at a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., first picked up a bottle of CBD oil at Cambridge Naturals, a health-food store. She tried 9 milligrams—about three droppers full—directly into her mouth on her way to work. “The effect was amazing,” she says. “What I was worried about didn’t matter as much. Not in a way that I was forgetting my responsibilities. But it gave me peace of mind and an overwhelming sense of calmness.”
CBD comes from the cannabis plant, which has different varieties. Cannabis grown for marijuana use is bred to have high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces the “high” people feel. Hemp is a different variety of cannabis that is very low in THC but can be high in CBD. Proponents of CBD are quick to point out that it is not THC.
Jeff Chen, director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, says much is still unclear on the science behind CBD’s purported effects. “We are trying to understand what is happening, why it’s happening or even if it is a true phenomenon versus placebo,” he says. CBD’s function as a so-called cannabinoid—a unique group of compounds found in cannabis that can interact with brain and body receptors—may contribute to self-reported effects such as anxiety relief and inflammation reduction, he says.
The legality of CBD products is also a gray area. For years, federal law regulated hemp alongside marijuana as a “controlled substance,” making it illegal to sell certain extracts or derivatives. In 2014, a federal farm bill let states start pilot programs to study the growth, cultivation and marketing of hemp. Some companies interpreted that as a green light to sell CBD-containing products.
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Sales of hemp-derived CBD in food, supplements and personal-care products grew 88% to $327.4 million in 2017, according to Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research firm based in Tampa, Fla., that predicts the market will grow to nearly $600 million this year. Brightfield believes the business could explode to $5.7 billion next year if Congress passes legislation from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky) that would more clearly allow companies to sell hemp-derived products, including CBD. Its prospects for passage are unclear.
For now, nine states and the District of Columbia have broad laws allowing recreational use of cannabis, which may include hemp. Even in states with the broadest language, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always legal to sell CBD-containing products. At least one of those states, California, has recently said that hemp-derived CBD isn’t generally allowed in food or beverages.
Nationwide, a Food and Drug Administration spokesman says CBD cannot be sold in dietary supplements or added to food that is being sold between states. “We remain concerned about the proliferation and illegal marketing of unapproved CBD-containing products with unproven medical claims,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. The agency referred questions about CBD sales confined to states where cannabis is legal to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson says CBD-containing product appearing on shelves “is there illegally,” but enforcement is not a priority for the agency, which is focused on the opioid crisis. In the states that have legalized cannabis use, “DEA is not after that. That would take a lot of manpower that DEA doesn’t have,” he says.
The legality of selling CBD to minors is another gray area. In states where cannabis is legal, there is usually a minimum age requirement of 18 to 21 for purchasing, says Dr. Chen. CBD products appearing on store shelves, however, often carry no age restriction, he says.
CBD entrepreneurs have navigated the legal landscape in different ways. Joseph Dowling, Chief Executive of CV Sciences Inc., says the company ships its CBD oils and capsules to all 50 states, including where cannabis is illegal. “We think we’re still covered under the 2014 Farm Bill.”
“It’s more nuanced than that,” says John Puckett, chief executive of Barlean’s, a Ferndale, Wash.-based supplements manufacturer. He says the company initially avoided shipping to certain states where cannabis isn’t legal, but starting this summer ships to all 50 states.
Some CBD marketers go out of their way to note that their products don’t contain the psychoactive THC. Beekeeper’s Naturals, a Los Angeles-based brand of honeys and supplements, invites consumers to “take the edge off during a stressful day” with its B.Chill honey, which it says contains “0% THC.” (Chief Executive Carly Stein says it contains CBD, though it is not on the label).
PHOTO: BEEKEEPER'S NATURALS
Big retailers are largely staying away. Target spokesman Joshua Thomas says it sold “a select assortment of CBD oil products” for “a brief time last fall,” but it pulled the plug. “We no longer offer them.” He declined to say why. A Walmart spokeswoman says the company “does not currently offer CBD products.”
Some smaller chains are forging ahead. Lucky’s Market, a Niwot, Colo.-based chain of more than 30 grocery stores in 11 states, says it carries “a variety of products that contain CBD in our stores where it is legal to do so,” selling CBD in states where cannabis is legal, according to an emailed statement from spokeswoman Krista Torvik.
Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market, a Midwestern chain of natural-foods stores, says that last summer, the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission’s enforcement agents removed CBD from shelves at an Indianapolis store. Two months later, store officials received an emailed statement from a State Excise Police official saying they would not continue CBD confiscations. “We interpreted that to mean that we could continue to sell it,” says Jonathan Lawrence, the chain’s director of vitamins and body care. Earlier this year, Indiana state law legalized hemp-derived CBD.
At parties and school pickups across the U.S., CBD is a topic of conversation. Michelle Steiner, a distributor for Kannaway, a network sales unit of Medical Marijuana Inc. focused on hemp-based CBD products, says she has 100 clients—most of them fellow moms and neighbors—near her home in Demarest, N.J., and has hosted CBD cocktail events at local bars and restaurants.
“It comes up in conversation all the time,” says Erin Lafond, a 44-year old elementary-school teacher’s aide and one of Ms. Steiner’s clients, who says a daily 25 milligram capsule of CBD has helped her sleep better. “It’s like the answer to everyone’s prayers.”