Q: How can I know what’s in the CBD products I buy?
A: Hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the cannabis plant. Both produce chemicals known as cannabinoids, including CBD — cannabidiol — and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a psychoactive compound associated with a high.
CBD products derived from hemp are legal to possess under a new federal law, as long as they contain 0.3% THC or less. In marijuana, which is not legal in many states, the amount of THC tends to be greater.
But in the gray area between state and federal regulations, and in the shifting terminology used to describe (and sometimes conflate) cannabis, marijuana and hemp, dubious promotions have proliferated. Some brands have claimed that their CBD is “a lifesaver” and an “unbelievable cure.” The Food and Drug Administration has warned companies to stop making “unfounded claims” that CBD can help treat cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and opioid withdrawal.
Several tests have found mislabeled CBD products, some with more THC than is permitted. Companies have complained about competitors cloning their packaging and selling adulterated CBD products.
“This market was illegal for a long time,” said Ann Skalski, a former executive at Saks Fifth Avenue who handles branding for Double Barrel, which recently marketed a $100,000 diamond-encrusted vaping device. “It might be hard for some of the players to change.”
Cannabis products were once advertised via word-of-mouth or on stickers in bathroom stalls. Now, marketing professionals recruited from top agencies and luxury brands are working to drum up demand. Within a decade, analysts expect Americans to spend more on cannabis than they currently do on their pets — a figure that stands around $75 billion.
Retail companies have spent millions of dollars to dismantle the stereotype of dazed, joint-toting slackers. After running a “Forget Stoner” marketing campaign, marijuana dispensary chain MedMen released a commercial this year, directed by Oscar-winner Spike Jonze, called “The New Normal.”
Some CBD products include a balm intended to soothe menstrual cramps, sold by Whoopi Goldberg’s company. Gwyneth Paltrow’s company, Goop, has promoted cannabis products in partnership with MedMen under the Wellness section of its site. Arizona Beverages, known for its iced teas, recently announced a partnership with Dixie Brands that could create THC-infused gummies and drinks. The message: Cannabis is as American as apple pie (a popular flavor for CBD-infused oils and tinctures, along with pumpkin spice).
Many companies are careful not to make unproven claims. But rules about marketing CBD and marijuana — which vary from state to state — are often confusing and difficult to enforce.
“There are already 500 different products, and 5,000 around the corner, and we’re doing nothing,” said John Ayers, a computational epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego.
Legislation passed last year removed some hemp-derived CBD from the federal government’s list of controlled substances. But while the Food and Drug Administration warns that it remains illegal to market CBD as a dietary supplement or an ingredient in food and beverages, the agency has barely enforced the ban.
At the same time, some CBD consumers continue to experience unexpected side effects. Forensic toxicologist Michelle Peace, a researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, said that in recent months she had received dozens of messages, many of them “terrifying,” from people worried that they had ingested adulterated CBD products.
“These aren’t necessarily products being marketed and sold in sketchy shops,” she said. “I’ve heard from, literally, little old ladies who walked in to their local pharmacy to purchase CBD products recommended to them.”
— Tiffany Hsu, The New York Times