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CBD hype: Is this hemp plant derivative snake oil or a legit remedy?

Ken Alltucker and Jayne O'DonnellAugust 16, 2019, 9:16 AM MDT

It's hard to find something CBD can't treat. 

That's if you believe the hype. Problems with aches and pains, inflammation, stress, unsatisfying sex and PMS? Try CBD. 

It comes in many forms: skin creams, lotions, oils, tinctures, pills and even a powder or liquid food additive. You can get it nearly everywhere. Neighborhood coffee shops splash CBD in lattes. Amazon delivers it to your doorstep. Walgreens and CVS will stock it in stores nationwide.

Although marketers hype the hemp plant derivative cannabidiol as a natural remedy for just about anything they might imagine, their therapeutic claims are rarely supported by medical evidence that CBD is significantly better than a placebo. 

When it comes to over-the-top claims, “there are probably some people taking advantage," said Jay Hartenbach, CEO of Medterra, one of the largest marketers of CBD. It’s important to “come back to the science."

Indeed, it's an industry mostly built on testimonials. Kim Kardashian said she's planning a CBD-themed baby shower. Former talk show host and cannabis activist Montel Williams has his own brand of CBD products and filed a federal lawsuit that says an unauthorized marketer co-opted his likeness and image to sell lower-quality versions.

Nearly 7% of Americans are using CBD, a figure projected to grow to 10% of Americans by 2025, according to investment research firm Cowen & Co. The fast-growing market already generates as much as $2 billion in sales. That could grow to $16 billion by 2025, according to Cowen & Co.

More: CBD products are popping up in stores near you. Here's what you need to know about them

With pitches from nurse practitioner Alex Capano – chief science officer of EcoFibre and Ananda Hemp, a company that sells a product it describes as the "first-and-only cannabis-infused intimate oil formulated by a reproductive medicine and cannabis clinician" – it's hard to imagine the hype going higher.  

 “It’s a free-for-all right now,” says Harry Nelson, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented several companies selling CBD products. “People have to be careful. There are good products and there’s also a lot of snake oil being sold.”

'No standard, no quality'

The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, signed by President Donald Trump in December, loosened restrictions on the use of hemp products that contain less than .3% THC. THC is the psychoactive component found in marijuana – the chemical that produces a high when smoked or ingested.

The farm bill removed products made with low-THC hemp, used to extract CBD, from the schedule 1 category that includes marijuana and other drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

This move has accelerated the use of CBD, but these products are still subject to federal and state oversight. That's left a patchwork of regulations: Most states allow CBD, while a handful of states still restrict its use. 

The Food and Drug Administration regulates CBD products, much like it regulates nutritional supplements. The federal agency has warned CBD marketers that have made false claims that their products can cure cancer and other ailments.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, whose last day was Friday, said early last week that he was concerned to hear major pharmacies and retail stores are selling CBD and said his agency will contact retailers and remind them that the agency's role is to protect consumers from products that might put them at risk.

At the same time, the warning letters announced today make clear that #FDA has and will continue to monitor the marketplace and use our authorities to take action against companies illegally selling these types of products when they are putting consumers at risk — Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) April 2, 2019

The FDA has approved the use of one cannabidiol drug, Epidiolex, to treat seizures from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome, two rare kinds of epilepsy. 

But research that has passed FDA muster is the exception in an industry that typically puts marketing ahead of science.

Nora Volkow is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She sees two major challenges with the explosion of CBD products.

“There’s no standard. There’s no quality,” Volkow says. “So many of them that say they may have a high content of cannabis oil, in fact, contain none. It’s very, very inaccurate.”

Because there are no standards, people might experiment with smoking, ingesting or absorbing via skin products or patches that have varying levels of CBD.

While advocates generally claim it as safe to use, Volkow says that medical evidence still needs to be collected and examined.

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