Produced by the marijuana or cannabis plant, CBD is the legal, straitlaced cousin of the plant’s more famous component THC, the chemical that delivers a high when ingested. CBD, or cannabidiol, has no mind-altering effects, yet the molecule has captured the attention of people in a profound way. CBD is sold in many forms, often with the claim of remedying pain, anxiety, insomnia, and other ailments, all without the mind-altering high of THC.
So far, claims of CBD’s supposed health benefits come from people trying to sell CBD-containing products, not from scientists, according to Margaret Haney, a neurobiologist who directs the Marijuana Research Laboratory at Columbia University. There’s an enormous gap between the ever-growing CBD market and the scientific evidence to back it.
While there are reasons to be excited about CBD, the science just isn’t there yet, Haney tells ScienceNews.
The CBD Industry is Booming
The U.S. sales of CBD-containing products have been consistently rising, and experts predict that trend to continue.
“Epidiolex, an antiseizure drug made available in 2018, is the only prescription medication containing CBD. Sales figures beginning with 2018 are estimates.” – ScienceNews.
U.S. CBD market growth and projections, 2014–2022
Source: New Frontier Data 2018, Hemp Business Journal
Scientists still don’t know exactly what CBD does to the human body, if anything. Other than tests in people with rare, difficult to treat forms of epilepsy, large studies comparing CBD with placebos in people are rare. Much of the current research was conducted with cells in a lab or in lab animals with results that may not necessarily translate precisely to humans.
Plus, there’s always the possibility that the magical effects some people experience using CBD are caused not by the CBD itself, but by a powerful placebo effect. That is to say, people who expect results are more likely to experience them.
Science is Looking to Catch Up
Researchers are now stepping into the void of CBD, lured in by the promising early data and miraculous results people are claiming to achieve.
Small trials are being conducted looking at the effect of CBD on ailments such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, opioid addiction, and other health problems.
The funding of CBD studies by the National Institutes of Health grew from zero in 2014 to an estimated $16 million in 2018, according to ScienceNews.org.
“We’re very interested in CBD,” Susan Weiss, director of the Division of Extramural Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, MD told ScienceNews. Still, she urges “caution to people eager to try CBD. Because of lax oversight, there’s no telling what’s inside many of those tinctures, oils, rubs, and foods for sale online and in stores,” she continued. “A lot of the products that people are taking may not be what they think.”
Despite the associated risks and warnings from scientists and doctors, it seems safe to say that society’s fascination (and almost obsession) with CBD isn’t going to die down anytime soon.
“People think it’s great for everything,” says cognitive neuroscientist Kent Hutchison of the University of Colorado Boulder to ScienceNews. “That can’t possibly be true. But I do think it’s going to be great for some things. We just need to figure out what those things are.”
CBD Seems to be a Seizure Stopper
In individuals with severe forms of epilepsy, CBD plus normal treatment (dark green bar) reduced seizures to a greater extent than did a placebo paired with normal treatment (light green bar), one trial showed.
Reduction in seizure frequency during treatment:
Source: E.A. Thiele et al/The Lancet 2018
Restricted Access Continues to Make Studying CBD No Easy Task
To answer the many questions surrounding CBD’s effects, researchers need access to the chemical. Unfortunately, a complex series of U.S. regulations make that difficult. CBD is subject to regulations from both the FDA and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
CBD produced by the cannabis plant remains on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of Schedule 1 drugs, the most restrictive class of drugs, alongside LSD, ecstasy, and other drugs that have been deemed low-benefit and high-risk.
However, access restrictions on industrial hemp, and by extension, the CBD that comes from industrial hemp, were eliminated in 2018’s Farm Bill, which was signed into law in December.
Unfortunately, however, CBD is still subject to FDA regulations, as well as any regulations imposed by individual states.
Until CBD is easily accessible by researchers, the popularity of CBD will likely continue to outpace the scientific evidence behind it. But it’s safe to assume that CBD is here to stay.