In the meantime, some physicians are forging ahead — and cashing in. Joe Cohen is a doctor at Holos Health, a medical marijuana clinic in Boulder. I asked him what CBD is good for, and he read me a long list of conditions: pain, inflammation, nausea, vomiting, intestinal cramping, anxiety, psychosis, muscle spasms, hyperactive immune systems, nervous system degeneration, elevated blood sugar and more. He also claimed that CBD has anti-cancer properties and can regenerate brain cells and reduce the brain’s levels of amyloid beta — a kind of protein that’s been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. I asked for references, noting that most of these weren’t listed in the Academies report or a similar review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “I think you just have to Google search it,” he said. It’s true that a preliminary study found hints that cannabinoids might reduce beta amyloid proteins in human brain cells, but the study was done in cells grown in a lab, not in people. As for cancer, the FDA sent warning letters last year to four companies that were selling products that claimed to “prevent, diagnose, treat or cure” cancer.
Research on low levels of CBD is, you guessed it, incredibly limited; just a single paper on the medical research database PubMed specifically looked at CBD in these low doses, as a treatment for Crohn’s disease. (It was not found to have an effect.) As such, it wouldn’t be fair to say that 5 or even 20 mg of CBD oil in your coffee is proven to do nothing; that hasn’t been proven. It’s more accurate to say that 20 mg of CBD oil in your coffee has never been proven to do much of anything, and related research indicates that’s probably way too low of a dose to have any measurable effect.
While CBD oil, a non-psychedelic extract of industrial hemp, seems to offer healing benefits when ingested almost any way, for some types of chronic pain, skin conditions, and other localized problems, topical applications allow users to go right to the source. Topical CBD can also work faster, since it doesn’t have to travel through the digestive system first.
Scientifically, the difference between what we refer to as hemp and marijuana comes from the intention the strain was bred for. The main difference between hemp and marijuana is the level of THC in the plant. Hemp has high levels of cannabidiol (CBD) and very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana is recognized for having high levels of THC and lower in CBD. In order to be considered hemp, the plant must have less than 0.3 percent THC. High levels of THC are responsible for the intoxicating feeling that marijuana is known for.
Despite this, CBD is something nobody knows much about, and certainly nobody is monitoring it properly. CBD is widely marketed as a supplement, despite the Food and Drug Administration saying it does not qualify as such (this is because it is an active ingredient in drugs which are either approved or under investigation to be approved). CBD goes largely unregulated by the agency; on the FDA’s FAQ page, a vague answer maintains there are “many factors in deciding whether or not to initiate an enforcement action.” The Department of Agriculture handles research grants and pilot programs for hemp, but that’s where its involvement ends.