.What We Don’t Know About CBD—and Why

It’s happy hour at the MeloMelo kava bar in downtown Santa Cruz. The afternoon weather is warm, and I’m looking to “wet my whistle,” as Dean Martin might have said. But there isn’t a drop of scotch or gin or even beer to be found here—it’s not that kind of place—so I saddle up to a suitable bar stool, motion to the barkeep and order a tall frosty glass of CBD brew on tap.

“Blood orange or lemon ginger?” she says.

“Lemon ginger,” I say, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world (thank God Dino’s not alive to see this). The drink is white, fizzy, opaque, kind of like a Tom Collins without the maraschino cherry. It’s also pretty refreshing.

CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, a once-obscure chemical compound found in cannabis that is having its moment in the pharmacological spotlight. If chemicals were pop singers, CBD would be Cardi B.

Unlike its cousin THC, which is the chemical that produces the high in marijuana, CBD is non-psychoactive. The brew I’m drinking will deliver no buzz, no tingle. Its benefits are all theoretical. CBD is marketed on its promise to reduce inflammation, manage anxiety and combat insomnia, among other claims. But hard evidence is scant.

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It is a truism of contemporary capitalism that markets operate on a different time horizon than science. Markets have often made a couple of passes around the block before science has put its pants on. And there is no more vivid illustration of this phenomenon than CBD.

It can now be found in hundreds of consumer products, including tinctures, oils, capsules, topical creams, lip balms, salt soaks, vaporizer mists, and soaps. It’s been added to chocolate bars, coffee, candy, and cocktails. A company called MaxDaddy sells CBD products for dogs. And, in an “SNL” skit waiting to happen, you can even buy something called Jack’s Knob Polish, a CDB-infused “personal lubricant.”

This avalanche of commercial opportunism is centered on a chemical that is still in a weird legal limbo. Almost every state in the country has some laws governing legal cannabis use, and a few allow legal use of CBD only. Marijuana is legal for all uses in 10 states, including California. But, in the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is still a Schedule I controlled substance that is highly addictive and has no medical value, no different from cocaine and heroin.

Complicating the picture is the recently passed federal farm bill, which legalized the production of industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive variant of cannabis (which has a noble role in early American history). The bill, championed by that notorious stoner Mitch McConnell, opens up new avenues for the sale of CBD products in states not yet on board with marijuana legalization.

But to what end? The only controlled study that has proven CBD’s therapeutic effectiveness comes from the U.K. company GW Pharmaceuticals, which has developed a prescription CBD tincture called Epidiolex, recently approved for use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. But that study was tightly focused on the treatment of two rare-but-severe forms of epilepsy, and makes no claims about the treatment of anxiety, depression or other ailments.

Josh Wurzer is a chemist and pioneer in the field of CBD research. In 2008, he was the director of the first quality control lab measuring medical marijuana, Oakland’s Steep Hill. Shortly thereafter, he and a few partners started their own lab, SC (Science of Cannabis) Labs in Santa Cruz. His lab tests strains of commercially grown cannabis for a variety of organic compounds, including CBD, as well as pathogens such as E. coli, pesticides and heavy metals.

Wurzer says the ambiguous legal status of cannabis is hampering efforts to more rigorously study physical effects that might validate health claims.

“If I’m a cannabis researcher,” Wurzer says, “and I want to do any kind of research in an organization that gets federal funding, I’m very limited to the cannabinoids I have access to.”

The feds maintain a farm to grow cannabis for study at, of all places, the University of Mississippi. “But the diversity of that plant material is very limited,” says Wurzer.

Even if there were studies confirming CBD’s potential healing properties, that doesn’t mean the bag of CBD gummies you buy on Amazon is going to do anything for you. California law requires mandatory testing on all cannabis products, but that only applies to products sold in licensed dispensaries, which use companies such as SC Labs to give consumers precise chemical profiles of nearly everything they sell. Products sold at grocery stores, health food stores or online do not necessarily use such testing, and this lack of a standard regulatory structure has created a kind of anything-goes environment in the commercial market.

What’s more, there is evidence to suggest that ingestion of CBD through the digestive system is inefficient, if not useless. “CBD has almost no oral bioavailability,” is the way Wurzer says it. He says that the most efficient ways to get CBD into the bloodstream are to inhale it, dissolve it in your mouth or (ick) use it as a suppository.

CBD research is a rapidly evolving field, and the range of possibilities is still wide. Wurzer has faith in the promise of CBD’s potential to help with any number of medical issues. At least, he says, taking CBD is not going to hurt you: “The upside is the super-low toxicity. We have still yet to have a documented case of THC or CBD overdose leading to any kind of death. You can’t say that about aspirin or ibuprofen.”

Back at the MeloMelo kava bar, my bartender tells me that my 12-ounce beverage has 25 milligrams of CBD in it, which means nothing to me. When I finish my non-intoxicating drink, she lays a much more meaningful number on me. The final tab? $7 (with a tip, $8).

I left the place, as promised, with a lighter spirit, though it could have just been the effect of a lighter wallet.


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