Why CBD Oil Is Basically a Scam
It’s hard to go anywhere nowadays without hearing about the benefits of cannabidiol (can-ab-id-EYE-all), aka CBD (and often CBD oil).
It’s all over the Internet, celebrities are endorsing it left and right, and it’s made its way into everything from lattes to sports drinks to sex lube (seriously).
Sales of CBD are already thought to be north of $350 million per year, and some analysts are predicting that number will surpass $1 billion by 2020.
Proponents say this is fantastic.
While CBD is a drug that comes from the same plant as marijuana, it doesn’t get you high, doesn’t have to be inhaled (no lung damage), and it’s kinda-sorta legal (more on that in a moment).
Purported benefits include alleviating anxiety, addiction, and epilepsy, accelerating post-workout recovery, curing chronic pain and even cancer, and helping with many other psychological and physiological conditions and ailments.
Some people even go so far as to say that CBD has healing properties that’ll help you live a generally healthier and happier life.
It also taps into the desire to indulge in social taboos (drug use, in this case), making it even more appealing to young people in particular.
On the other hand, CBD isn’t without detractors who claim that it’s an unproven, understudied, and potentially dangerous new health fad.
According to the naysayers, at best CBD isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and at worst regular use can lead to major long-term health complications.
Well, the surprising and disturbing answer is we don’t really know.
As you’ll learn in this article, parsing the research on CBD is about as easy as combing your hair with a broom and in the end, you’re left with far more questions than answers.
The short story on CBD is that although it may have some benefits, it’s being wildly overhyped and oversold and it most certainly poses some serious health risks.
Let’s kick the discussion off by first exploring what CBD is.
What Is CBD?
CBD is an acronym that stands for cannabidiol (can-ab-id-EYE-all), which is a chemical found in cannabis plants, including marijuana and hemp.
(And CBD oil is what it sounds like: CBD that’s been dissolved in oil to make it easier to consume.)
CBD is made by growing cannabis plants, drying them out, crushing them, and then mixing the powder with ethanol. This separates the CBD from the other compounds, allowing it to be isolated and purified.
The end product is a white powder that should be 99+% pure CBD, which is referred to as CBD isolate.
You may have also seen mention of “full spectrum CBD,” which refers to CBD that also contains other chemicals. There’s no agreed-upon definition of the term, however, so often it’s more of a marketing buzzword than anything else.
CBD belongs to a class of chemicals called cannabinoids, and there are at least 113 of these substances in in marijuana in particular. The most famous is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the main active ingredient in weed that causes a long list of effects in the body—both good and bad—including:
- Analgesia (pain relief)
- Short-term memory loss
- Reduced coordination
- Slurred speech
One of the main selling points of CBD is that it purportedly offers some the positive effects of THC, such as pain relief and relaxation, without the negative effects like confusion, paranoia, anxiety, etc.
In other words, many people see CBD as a safer, milder, non-intoxicating alternative to THC and weed—a kind of “weed without the high.”
There’s some truth here.
As you’ll learn, CBD may be able to help slightly reduce pain and anxiety and the frequency of seizures in people with specific medical conditions.
Scientists aren’t sure just yet as to why, but it may have to do with the fact that both CBD and THC trigger the same receptors in the brain.
To understand how this works, you need to understand how the body’s endocannabinoid system functions. Here’s the gist:
The body produces chemicals called endocannabinoids that enter special receptors in various cells and cause many different effects ranging from increased appetite to reduced pain and improved mood.
You can think of receptors like cellular “locks” that only accept certain “keys” (chemicals with specific structures). Once a key (chemical) is accepted in a given lock (receptor), a specific physiological change or series of changes occurs in the cell.
For example, androgen receptors are designed to accept steroid hormones like testosterone and reject all others. And when such a chemical enters an androgen receptor, it activates various processes including muscle and hair growth, red blood cell creation, fat loss, and a deepening of the voice.
Sometimes, chemicals not produced by the body are similar enough to those produced by the body to trigger receptors in the same way.
This is the case with CBD and THC. Both of these chemicals stimulate the CB1 receptor—an endocannabinoid receptor found in the brain—that seems to be responsible for many of the effects associated with weed.
That said, although CBD and THC fit into same receptor, they have different effects in the body.
Scientists aren’t sure why this is, but they think it may be because CBD simply isn’t as effective at stimulating the receptor as THC.
There’s also evidence that CBD interacts with several other receptors, too, such as one called CB2 and another called 5-HT1A. This is one of the reasons why CBD is so difficult to study—it affects the body in incredibly complex ways.
So in short, CBD is a compound found in cannabis plants that affects the brain in similar, yet weaker, ways as THC, which is the chemical in cannabis that gets you high.
What Are the Benefits of CBD?
Surf around the Net a bit and you’ll inevitably hear that CBD can mitigate or even heal just about every type of ailment, ranging from the plausible (pain) to absurd (cancer).
Instead of examining every one of the many claims, let’s focus on the most common ones used to sell CBD products:
- Drug addiction
Starting at the top . . .
CBD and Anxiety
One of the main reasons people take CBD is that it’s supposed to reduce anxiety.
This is also why many people say they smoke weed, so it makes sense that CBD is associated with the same benefit.
What does the scientific evidence say, though?
Specifically, there are very few studies on how CBD affects anxiety, and the few that have been done don’t give us anything to get excited about.
A good summary of this research can be found in a review conducted by scientists at the University of Nottingham, which looked at eight rat studies on CBD and anxiety.
Three of the studies analyzed showed a reduction in anxiety, one showed an increase, and five showed no significant changes. Four of the studies also found that CBD impaired the rats’ short-term memory.
We humans aren’t big rats though, so what about us?
Well, one of the few human studies on CBD and anxiety was conducted by scientists at the University of Sao Paulo.
The researchers had 60 men and women between the ages of 18 and 35 perform a two-minute public speaking assignment, and split them into five groups that took either a placebo or dosage of CBD 2 ½ hours before speaking:
- A group that took 100 mg of CBD
- A group that took 300 mg of CBD
- A group that took 900 mg of CBD
- A group that took clonazepam (an anti-anxiety drug)
- A group that took a placebo
Before, during, and after the speaking gig, the researchers also had participants to rate their anxiety levels and measured their blood pressure levels and heart rates as potential indicators of nervousness.
In the end, the team found no change in anxiety in the groups that took 100 and 900 mg of CBD, but the groups that took 300 mg of CBD and clonazepam did experience statistically significant decreases in anxiety.
Thus, the researchers concluded that CBD may help reduce anxiety at around the 300 mg level, but taking less or more than this amount might not offer any benefits. In other words, 300 mg of CBD may be a sweet spot of sorts for reducing anxiety.
An alternative explanation is that the positive results from the 300 mg dosage were more or less a fluke because normally, increasing the amount of a drug increases the effects or at least doesn’t decrease them.
For example, 300 mg of caffeine will give anyone a nice buzz and 900 mg would never produce anything less.
CBD and caffeine aren’t similar whatsoever, of course, but it’s still odd that 900 mg of CBD appeared to produce no results while 300 mg did.
Another study conducted by the same lab at the same university found a similar drop in anxiety with 400 mg of CBD, but it only included 10 people so it’s of limited value (as the sample size of a study decreases, the chances of random findings increase).
Finally, another review of the CBD literature conducted by researchers at New York University found that high amounts of CBD—10 to 20 mg per kg of body weight per day—may slightly reduce anxiety. For a 180-pound man, that works out to 800 to 1,600 mg of CBD per day, which is far more than you can practically (and affordably) obtain through most CBD products.
For example, the company NuLeaf Naturals sells a bottle of CBD oil that contains 240 mg of cannabidiol for $38.50. A popular online retailer, The CBDistillery, sells 500 mg of CBD for $45, and CBDMD sells 300 mg for $27.95.
When you average it out, CBD currently costs about $9 to $16 dollars per 100 mg, making it prohibitively expensive to use at clinically effective levels for reducing anxiety.
The minimum amount shown to have any effect in this regard is 300 mg. Run the numbers and that means daily usage would cost anywhere from $270 to $480 a month, and if you wanted to take the highest doses found in the literature, you’d have to fork over a few thousand dollars per month.
Oh and no matter how much you take, you may or may not even feel any better for it.
Keep those dosage numbers in mind next time you see a $9 dollar latte or snack with 10 mg of CBD. You’d need at least 30 times that amount to make it worth anything if you’re trying to reduce anxiety.
So that’s the long and short of CBD and anxiety—a handful of inconclusive rat studies and two lackluster human trials that haven’t been replicated by other labs.
Thus, it’s fair to say that while CBD may be able to slightly reduce anxiety in some people, the results so far have been unimpressive and it’s definitely not a cheap solution.
CBD and Pain
A big selling point of CBD is that it’s a natural, safe, and non-addictive painkiller.
This is bolstered by a growing body of anecdotal evidence online from people claiming to use CBD to reduce pain, especially chronic pain caused by old injuries, illnesses, arthritis, migraine headaches, and the like.
Furthermore, with opioid abuse becoming increasingly common, scientists and sufferers alike are looking into marijuana and its derivatives as potential substitutes.
The problem is there’s very little research on CBD and pain, and while a few studies provide glimmerings of hope, most have been done on animals in unrealistic conditions or on isolated cells. This means that scientists can only speculate as to how things might work in live, healthy humans.
For example, one study conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky found that CBD gel was able to reduce pain and inflammation related to arthritis in rats. This paper is often cited as conclusive evidence that CBD helps reduce arthritis pain in humans, but . . .
- Rats aren’t perfect biological stand-ins for humans
- The “arthritis” was artificially created by injecting the animals’ joints with an irritant (it wasn’t real arthritis)
- The experiment only lasted a week, so it’s hard to say how the results would apply to a chronic condition
A 2017 report published by the National Academies of Sciences is also worth mentioning, as it states there’s “conclusive or substantial evidence” that cannabis can reduce chronic pain. That’s cannabis, though, which includes THC and other chemicals, so it’s unclear if CBD is effective on its own for the same purpose.
Another bit of research often promoted by CBD proponents and sellers is a 2008 review conducted by a researcher on behalf of GW Pharmaceuticals (a manufacturer of cannabis-related products).
Here it’s claimed that cannabis and its derivatives can help treat intractable pain, but all of the compounds reviewed were modified or synthetic forms of THC, not CBD. And so what the review actually found is that THC helps reduce pain, but it didn’t include a single study showing that CBD offers similar benefits.
And what of the many people who claim that CBD has helped reduce their pain?
Well, in some cases, the benefits are almost certainly due to high levels of THC present in the products (yes, in CBD products–more on that soon). And in other cases, the results are almost certainly due the placebo effect rather than the CBD itself.
If the idea that tens of thousands of people’s minds are playing tricks on them sounds preposterous to you, don’t be so sure.
Research shows that placebos work even when people know they’re placebos, and the more someone believes their placebo of choice will work, the more likely it is to produce (short-term, temporary) benefits.
The bottom line is that while it’s possible CBD may help reduce pain, there’s very little scientific evidence to support such a claim.
CBD and Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a condition where abnormal brain cell activity triggers unpredictable seizures.
There are many different kinds of epilepsy with different causes and manifestations, but often the cause is totally unknown.
Eastern cultures have been using cannabis for treating various brain-related illnesses like epilepsy for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that it received formal attention in the West.
Some of the first official research on the medical use of cannabis was performed by an Irish soldier and physician named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who was stationed in India in 1843.
One of his first major breakthroughs came when he found that resin from the cannabis plant could reduce the muscle spasms caused by the tetanus bacteria and rabies virus.
Scientists have been studying cannabis off and on ever since then, but several discoveries in the past decade or so have sparked major interest in its effects on epilepsy in particular.
Now, as far as CBD goes, studies on rats show it can effectively reduce the frequency and severity of seizures, although it isn’t exactly clear how it works.
A handful of human studies have also found a reduction in seizures, but most of them didn’t include proper controls. Thus a review conducted by scientists at Geisinger Medical Center and published in 2017 concluded that “. . . no reliable conclusions can be drawn at present regarding the efficacy of cannabinoids as a treatment for epilepsy.”
That changed soon after, however, when three studies found that CBD effectively reduced seizures in two rare, drug-resistant forms of epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.
All three experiments showed that CBD reduced seizures in people with these conditions by about 40 to 50% compared to just 20 to 30% with a placebo.
While those results are significant, a major problem with these trials is the participants didn’t just take CBD. Instead, CBD was added to their existing regimen of epilepsy drugs.
Thus, some researchers have pointed out that the results may have been due at least in part to an interaction between CBD and these other drugs, not a direct effect of CBD itself.
Another problem with all three of these studies is none of them lasted more than 14 weeks, so we don’t know if these positive effects would have continued over a longer period.
This is an important point, as well, because a common thread among stories of people who’ve tried CBD for treating epilepsy is diminishing effects and the return of seizures over time.
Nevertheless, these studies led to the FDA approving a pharmaceutical version of CBD called Epidiolex for treating the two rare forms of epilepsy mentioned (Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome).
This doesn’t mean, however, that CBD will also be helpful for the vast majority of people who don’t have these conditions. It means a combination of CBD and other drugs may help control seizures in people who have one of two rare forms of epilepsy.
Many CBD lovers don’t let that get in the way of their fanaticism, however, which is why you often see people touting the FDA announcement as definitive proof that CBD is the best natural cure for epilepsy around.
CBD may help control seizures in two rare forms of epilepsy, but it’s only proven to work when combined with other drugs and isn’t approved by the FDA to treat any other forms of the disorder.
CBD and Drug Addiction
When someone is addicted to drugs, one way to break the habit is to gradually replace their drug of choice with less addictive substitutes.
For example, a common treatment method for heroin addiction is to give people a synthetic, less powerful opioid called methadone.
This often works better than simply having someone stop taking heroin cold turkey, but methadone has a relatively high risk of addiction, abuse, and overdose as well, so for many people it’s a chemical equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Some scientists think that CBD could be an effective alternative to methadone and drugs like it. This is because it affects some of the same receptors in the brain as opioids, but isn’t saddled by the significant health risks.
An interesting study conducted by scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine tested this theory on rats.
Researchers trained 155 rats to give themselves heroin by pumping a lever and then measured how often the rodents did it to establish a baseline measurement of their level of addiction. The scientists also trained the rats to associate heroin with a cue—a small light that would turn on when the lever was pressed.
After the scientists determined that the rats were thoroughly addicted to the heroin, they divided them into three groups that received varying levels of CBD in addition to their smack:
- A group that received an injection of placebo daily (no CBD)
- A group that received an injection of 5 mg per kg of CBD daily
- A group that received an injection of 20 mg per kg of CBD daily
The researchers found that neither of the CBD doses had any effect on how much heroin the rats gave themselves.
After a two week “detox” where the rats were weaned off heroin, though, the ones that received CBD were less likely to take heroin again after being exposed to the light cue (to remind them of the availability of the heroin).
In other words, CBD didn’t curb the rat’s addiction, but it appeared to reduce their risk of relapse.
Other studies have also shown that CBD may help reduce withdrawal symptoms in morphine-addicted rats.
Well, a review conducted by scientists at the University of Maryland found that CBD may be slightly beneficial for reducing the risk of relapse among formerly addicted people, but not for helping them kick the habit when hooked.
And what about CBD’s effects on addiction to a milder drug like nicotine?
One study did investigate if CBD could help people stop smoking, and it was surprisingly positive.
Researchers from University College London split 24 smokers into two groups:
- A group that was given an inhaler that contained CBD
- A group that was given an inhaler that contained a placebo solution
Both groups were told to use the inhaler whenever they had the urge to smoke. After one week, the group that used the CBD inhaler smoked 40% fewer cigarettes than before the experiment, and there was no difference in cigarette smoking in the group that used the placebo inhaler.
This study had a small sample size and only lasted a week, but the results are still promising and warrant further investigation.
Until then, however, we can only guess as to how effective CBD really is for helping people quit smoking.
The bottom line is that CBD may help reduce the risk of relapsing into drug use and reduce cigarette smoking, but it doesn’t appear to help break hard drug addiction.
CBD and Cancer
Another common claim made about CBD is that it can help fight cancer.
There’s no evidence this is the case, and the arguments usually consist of prattle about the drug’s antioxidant effects. It’s true that CBD has some antioxidant properties, but so does almost every other plant, and it’s downright fraudulent to say this means it fights cancer.
That’s what the FDA thinks, too.
In 2017, they wrote warning letters to four companies selling CBD products—Greenroads Health, Natural Alchemist, That’s Natural! Marketing and Consulting, and Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises LLC—telling them to stop claiming CBD and other cannabis derivatives can help treat, reverse, or even cure cancer.
No studies have proven that CBD can help treat cancer, and the U.S. government is going after people who claim it can.
Can You Get High from CBD?
No, at least not from pure CBD.
CBD doesn’t cause the same hallucinogenic, mind-altering effects as THC, so it’s not possible to get high from it.
Not all CBD products only contain CBD, though, which is where things get scary.
Reports abound of people sending CBD products to independent labs for testing to discover they not only contain little or no CBD, but also high levels of THC–high enough to fail a drug test.
In fact, a series of tests conducted by the FDA found the same: many CBD products contained no or trace amounts CBD and significant amounts of THC.
For example, despite claiming to contain anywhere from 1 to 35% CBD (by weight), six of the products analyzed contained zero cannabinoids of any kind, 11 contained less than 1%, and the product that contained the most CBD (2.6%) were pills for dogs.
The worst offender in the FDA’s investigation was Sana Te Premium Oils, which advertised their CBD oil as containing 25.2% CBD by weight. It tested at just 0.0017% CBD and 1.3% THC. For comparison, marijuana can be anywhere from 3% to 30% THC.
These types of shenanigans have spurred some states, like Texas, to pass laws aimed at standardizing the quality of CBD products produced within their borders. Many states have no such laws, however, and those that do aren’t strictly enforcing them.
The same goes for the federal government.
In the Agricultural Act of 2014, the U.S. government states that all forms of industrial hemp (which is used to produce CBD), must not contain more than 0.3% THC.
This isn’t being enforced, however, so there’s no way for consumers to know which companies are complying and which aren’t.
The bottom line is that when you consume a CBD product, you’re trusting the manufacturer is on the up and up, and many aren’t.
In many cases, the products contain little or no CBD and sometimes high levels of THC as well.
Is CBD Safe?
CBD seems to be relatively safe in its pure form.
While there are no long-term studies on its use, there’s also not much evidence it’s dangerous.
What could be dangerous, though, are other substances often found in CBD products.
As the tests from the FDA have shown, many CBD companies put little to no effort into quality control and government regulation is basically nonexistent, so there’s really no way to know what the hell you’re ingesting unless you have independent lab tests to review first.
Another problem with the safety of CBD products stems from how cannabis plants suck up chemicals from the soil.
All plants absorb heavy metals, toxins and other chemical pollutants from the soil through a process known as bioremediation, and cannabis seems to be particularly effective at this.
Although no studies have looked at how this might affect CBD products specifically, a study conducted by scientists at the College of Natural Sciences found high amounts of lead and cadmium in cannabis leaves collected from four different regions in Ethiopia.
It’s entirely possible, then, that unhealthy amounts of these poisons are present in many CBD products, but most companies don’t test their raw ingredients for such compounds and, quite frankly, could care less.
CBD appears to be safe in the short-term, but there have been no long-term studies on how it might affect human health.
Furthermore, there’s good reason to believe that CBD products may contain unsafe levels of heavy metals and other toxins.
Is CBD Legal?
And this is the case regardless of whether the CBD comes from hemp or marijuana.
How are companies openly making buku bucks from selling an illegal drug, then?
Because the federal government has more or less given up trying to stop it, and has also permitted states to pass local laws that allow the sale and use of CBD under certain conditions.
For instance, thirty states allow cannabis for medical purposes, and these laws include CBD products as well, and several other states, like Texas, have laws that allow the use of CBD for specific conditions like epilepsy.
Some CBD companies try to sidestep the law by calling their products “dietary supplements,” but the only CBD product that’s legal (with a prescription), according to the U.S. government, is the epilepsy drug Epidiolex.
CBD is illegal on paper but de facto legal, because most states and the federal government have made it clear they have no intention of enforcing laws against CBD usage.