Is the hype about cannabidiol justified?

Some say it’s the next wonder drug while others urge caution

Created date

March 22nd, 2018
a marijuana leaf in front of various bottles and vials of extracts and oils

Jean Bennett of Silver Spring, Md., suffers from arthritis in her hands. Not only is the condition painful, it often causes one of her fingers to freeze in place, and when that happens, movement is nearly impossible.

“I can’t really move my trigger finger,” she says holding up her right hand. “Sometimes, it’s stiff like this for the whole day.”

As she speaks, Jean rubs a new pain cream over her hands, paying particular attention to her stiff finger. “I don’t feel anything,” she says almost immediately. With a cabinet full of products that failed to deliver any kind of relief, Jean has good reason to be pessimistic. In fact, she says she no longer buys any kind of “miracle cure” product unless it comes with a money-back guarantee.

As she recounts the long list of products she has tried, Jean looks down at her finger. She’s wiggling it with abandon. “I can’t believe it,” she says. “This actually works.”

The cream Jean used contained cannabidiol, or CBD, one of the chemical compounds found in cannabis, a genus of plants that includes marijuana and hemp. The two flowering plants are genetically similar, except marijuana also contains a significant amount of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. With a negligible amount of THC, hemp is nonpsychoactive. In other words, it won’t make you high.

The CBD oil in the lotion Jean used was derived from hemp plants and purchased through an online retailer without a prescription.

As laws restricting the sale of cannabinoids make access easier in a growing number of states, manufacturers are touting CBD as a panacea for everything from anxiety and insomnia to pain, acne, and a host of other concerns.

Business experts predict that CBD will grow into a $2-billion-plus industry within the next three years.

Is it legal?

The legality of CBD oil is murky. Make your way to the “frequently asked questions” page of a CBD Internet retailer and it will assure you that CBD is legal everywhere. This is not entirely accurate.

The 2014 Farm Bill made the sale and use of American-grown industrial hemp legal, so Internet retailers are marketing CBD products derived from American industrial hemp to consumers in every state. However, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) interprets the 2014 Farm Bill far more narrowly.

From the DEA’s perspective, CBD is only legal when used for academic research or as part of a state-run pilot program.

So is it legal? That depends on where you live. In states like California, CBD is completely legal. In other states, CBD sales are restricted or banned.


There are CBD gummy bears and chocolates that claim to ease anxiety. There are face creams to combat acne and wrinkles. There are even CBD products to calm high-strung pets.

While CBD may help some conditions, most CBD products have not gone through the rigorous testing required to legally make any specific health claims. Furthermore, there is little to no regulation or oversight of CBD products.

Marcel Bonn-Miller, Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was the lead author of a study published in the Journal of American Medicine. It found that nearly 70% of all cannabidiol products sold online are either over- or under-labeled.

“People are using this as medicine for many conditions [anxiety, inflammation, pain, epilepsy],” Bonn-Miller says. “The biggest implication is that many of these patients may not be getting the proper dosage; they’re either not getting enough for it to be effective or they’re getting too much.”

“There are currently no standards for producing, testing, or labeling these oils,” Bonn-Miller says. “So, right now, if you buy a Hershey bar, you know it has been checked over; you know how many calories are in it; you know it has chocolate as an ingredient; you know how much chocolate is in there. Selling these oils without oversight, there is no way to know what is actually in the bottle. It’s crazy to have less oversight and information about a product being widely used for medicinal purposes than a Hershey bar.”

False claims

Some opportunistic marketers have made wildly unsubstantiated claims, such as “CBD has anti-proliferative properties that inhibit cell division and growth in certain types of cancer, not allowing the tumor to grow” and “Nonpsychoactive cannabinoids like CBD may be effective in treating tumors from cancer—including breast cancer.”

The Food and Drug Administration recently issued warnings to companies deceptively marketing CBD, calling for them to immediately stop making fraudulent claims.

“We recognize that there’s interest in developing therapies from marijuana and its components, but the safest way for this to occur is through the drug approval process—not through unsubstantiated claims made on a website,” says FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. “We support sound, scientifically based research using components derived from marijuana, and we’ll continue to work with product developers who are interested in bringing safe, effective, and quality products to market.”

Until there is greater oversight and more testing, proceed with caution if you choose to try a CBD product.

Take it from Jean Bennett. That cream she purchased cost $45, and while it worked initially, it failed to have any impact on subsequent applications. And no, it did not have a money-back guarantee.