Reporters and Editors: Chad Franzen, Emma Gibson, Daniel Paiz, Kelsey Simpkins
Words: Kelsey Simpkins
Infographics, Video Production and Editing: Emma Gibson
Video Filming and Editing: Chad Franzen and Daniel Paiz
With the sales of CBD products poised to break $2 billion in the U.S. by 2020, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder are finally supplementing the industry’s wealth of anecdotal evidence about its benefits with scientific research.
It’s some of the first of its kind, as most research around cannabis in the U.S. has focused on its negative effects, both on the body and in society. But Cinnamon Bidwell, assistant professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, is part of ongoing research at the university that studies the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis and various compounds within it.
“Is it as legitimate as people say or is it a work in progress? I’d say both,” Bidwell says.
There’s a “little tiny body of literature,” at present that suggests certain cannabinoids, the chemicals within cannabis, have strong therapeutic potential for pain and nausea, as well as certain types of muscle spasms. But this little bit of literature – and a heavy dose of anecdotes – is all the cannabis industry needed to start marketing cannabidiol, or CBD, as a cure-all.
CBD derived from hemp is the only form of cannabis legal in all 50 states. It’s not addictive and is non-psychoactive, so it won’t get you high. And it’s been claimed to manage pain, lessen anxiety, reduce inflammation, treat seizures, ease arthritis and even cure cancer.
At $45 per bottle and up, it’s not a cheap choice for consumers. And with an industry on the edge of being worth billions, this scientific research is desperately needed to clarify claims that many people are relying on to help their health.
“If you Google nicotine and smoking…and see how many hits you come up with in terms of the body of evidence around the impact of nicotine, you’re talking about millions of research studies,” Bidwell says.
If you do the same thing with cannabis, you’re talking about only a hundredth, or a thousandth of the size of that body of evidence, she says. Because there’s very little scientific data on the health benefits of cannabis, that’s left a big vacuum for people to use anecdotal evidence to drive their decisions.
Navigating Research Obstacles
The federal government will provide marijuana for research purposes, but it’s a long process to apply for it and government weed is quite low in THC compared with products sold in legal states. To know how real-world cannabis is affecting the public, real-world cannabis needs to be used in the lab.
But because cannabis remains a Schedule I drug according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Bidwell’s lab is limited in their ability to study it, even though it is legal at the state level.
But the federal government didn’t say they couldn’t be clever.
So Bidwell’s lab created a mobile pharmacology lab, “affectionately known as the Cannavan.”
The researchers drive the van to a person’s home at a preset time, when they will be using cannabis. Then they assess the volunteer in standardized, experimentally controlled ways, with tests involving reaction times and a blood sample. Then the volunteer goes back into their home and self-administers their cannabis product of choice. They return to the mobile lab once the drug’s effects kick in, and the same assessments are taken again.
“Even though we can’t touch it…we’re basically interested in trying to look at this in the real-world way,” Bidwell says.
Her lab is looking at how THC and CBD, the two most common cannabinoids, work together to maximize symptom relief without impairing people. As this research continues, she and her lab want to know how much CBD gets absorbed into the body not only when it is smoked, but consumed in a fat-soluble compound or transdermally administered.
“We really have no data on how much of the potentially therapeutic agent is getting into the body, getting into the brain, targeting the appropriate areas,” Bidwell says.
Marijuana on the Market
Meanwhile, companies and stores in states with recreationally legal status are racing ahead in the market of cannabis cure-alls. You can buy whole hemp or CBD extract oils, tinctures, salves, lotions, pills, and more at dispensaries or even at grocery stores. Some have THC, some do not. But they all claim to benefit your body or mind in some way.
“Everybody wants it and everybody’s curious about it,” says Kristin Evans, natural living and apothecary manager at Lucky’s Market in North Boulder, Colorado.
Lucky’s Market in North Boulder put CBD products on their shelves in 2016, becoming one of the first retailers to carry CBD oils in Colorado. They gained national attention about it in October 2017 after it received media attention from The Denver Post and NPR.
When asked about why they carry these products and how they advertise them, Evans admits their retail operation doesn’t publish any studies. But as a lot of companies are doing, they will reference scientific publications in their materials.
In a 2017 survey by HelloMD and Brightfield Group, respondents replied with overwhelmingly positive reviews of CBD product use, with 42 percent claiming to having stopped using traditional medications in favor of cannabis, and 80 percent of users found these products to be a “very or extremely effective treatment.”
Bidwell, however, remains concerned for consumers. For each bottle of CBD oil or cannabis extract, “it’s almost the Wild West in terms of what’s in there,” she says.
The science from each CBD company’s lab may be able to accurately calculate what’s in their products, but not how they benefit a person’s health, someone with a specific illness, or someone with multiple ailments. There still is very little direction in how to become a consumer of cannabis extracts, and a cost-effective, successful one at that.
At Lucky’s, they do have a taste testing station, where customers can try out different brands, as each company’s extraction methods and flavorings are unique. The majority of the products at their store are from companies in Colorado.
One of these producers is A Boulder Pharm, less than 10 miles from the store. They have been growing organic crops for 17 years, and organic hemp since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.
William Held and Michael Luebnitz, owners and partners in the business, are passionate about their whole hemp oil products, as well as cannabis consumer education.
There are hundreds of hemp cannabidiol brands in the U.S. today, in addition to hundreds more growers and processors. But they aren’t all home grown.
Many businesses purchase wholesale CBD extracts from other companies that do the growing and extraction process, simply re-bottling oils and tinctures with their own brand. This is called “white labeling,” and is done by many domestic companies. But many American producers also import large amounts of industrial CBD oil from China, often routed through Europe, and pass it off as a local or European product.
“And the problem is there’s a lot of pesticides and heavy metals and other microbial contaminants that are within that concentrated isolate. It’s important that the consumer really educate themselves on the product that they’re purchasing,” Held says.
Held and Luebnitz admit that they cannot make any verified health claims about their whole hemp extract products, and must include an FDA disclaimer on their website, which states:
“This website contains general information about diet, health and nutrition. None of the information is advice, and should not be considered or treated as a substitute for advice from a healthcare professional.”
But does anyone read the fine print?
“It’s still a buyer beware market. You only have to go into a shop and be detailed by a budtender to feel like they must be some sort of pharmaceutical expert with the recommendations they’re making,” says Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The strain of Cannabis sativa that contains very little THC, while retaining many or most of cannabis’ other cannabinoids, is industrial hemp. Hemp can be bred for anything from a fiber material to an energy source. Since the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill, hemp farming has been legal in states which passed legislation for it, including Colorado.
Growers of hemp discovered that CBD and other cannabinoids could be specifically extracted from hemp in the form of oils or powders. And with hemp’s limited legalization in 2014, hemp-derived CBD oils and whole hemp products became legal in all 50 states, although four have imposed shipping restrictions. Since these products have hit the market, sales have only continued to rise, and are poised to hit $1 billion in the next few years.
Thirty-four states now allow the commercial production of hemp. Colorado is one of them, with at least 10,000 registered acres used for growing hemp in 2017, a more than 500 percent increase since 2014.
As of December 2017, there are 488 hemp producers in Colorado, compared with only 131 in 2014. In Boulder County alone there are now 32 registrants, while there are 33 in Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Denver, and Jefferson Counties combined.
Most of 2016’s $130 million in hemp CBD sales were online, according to The Hemp Business Journal, and that is unlikely to change as the decade continues. This leaves Colorado as a major producer of hemp and CBD products in the U.S..
Human and Animal Trials
And many CBD users are not only turning to the internet to buy their products, but to learn about them from others and share their own experiences.
At Hildi Singer’s last visit to the doctor, she had a normal blood pressure for the first time in years. Singer lives in Georgetown, Kentucky, where cannabis not legal either medically or recreationally. She’s a retired nurse and no longer able to work, due to several physical and mental ailments.
In her search for an affordable, natural solution to her conditions, Singer joined online groups like the Facebook CBD Oil Users Group for advice and to connect with other CBD users who use it to treat their medical issues. Like many people who consume cannabis, Singer is self-medicating; testing out different concentrations of CBD oil and other cannabis extracts on her own time and dime.
“It’s definitely a learning process and each person responds so differently,” Singer admits. “I’m still in my own clinical trial of sorts.”
Many Americans are not only testing out CBD on themselves, but are now testing out how cannabis products impact their pets.
Angie Krause has been practicing holistic veterinary medicine in Denver and Boulder for the past decade. After recreational cannabis was legalized for retail sale in Colorado in 2014, her clients started talking about it more openly and noticed several vets had starting making products specifically for animals.
“I had to quickly become as informed as I could,” Krause says. “I couldn’t ignore it, because people wanted me to guide them.”
The Future of CBD
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars looking at the potential harms of cannabis and criminalizing its use. This recent resurgence in research looking at the therapeutic potential of cannabis is a small, but important turning point in how the U.S. treats the plant and the people who use it.
In Canada, medical marijuana has been legal nationwide since 2000 and recreational marijuana will become legal in the summer of 2018.
Philippe Lucas, Vice President of Patient Research and Access at Tilray and Graduate Researcher at the Canadian Institute of Substance Use Research, published a paper in August 2017 about cannabis-based interventions in the opioid overdose crisis, and is currently working on clinical trials around pediatric epilepsy and CBD.
“What’s less in question over the last 10 years is the overall safety of cannabis and cannabinoids,” Lucas says. “Now what we have to do, with a lot more diligence, is move into the aspects of where the maximum therapeutic potential is and how to maximize the therapeutic potential of this plant and these chemicals.”
For Lucas, recognizing cannabis’ zero potential for overdose, low potential for abuse, and high therapeutic potential in the U.S. is key to continued research. That means destigmatizing its use by removing the criminal sanctions against and rescheduling it so it can be properly studied.
In the meantime, the CBD market remains optimistic and opportunistic.