The biggest questions raised during CBD’s meteoric rise to become this year’s wellness ingredient du jour were incredibly simple: Is CBD real? Does CBD work? The lack of basic consumer knowledge about something so widely advertised, written about, sold, and ingested was both normal for “supplements” in the U.S. and also completely absurd. It’s even more absurd that the actual answer basically boils down to: It’s kind of real, but probably not the way you’re using it.
CBD, short for cannabidiol, a minimally psychoactive derivative of cannabis, rose from relative obscurity at the same time that cannabis legalization shed its status as a niche issue. Until the past decade or so, anything related to weed legalization was a cause few Americans paid attention to, because it was still seen as the providence of freaks and burnouts; its earliest modern champions were queer activists looking to alleviate the pain of the AIDS crisis. But as attitudes began to shift and more states began enacting recreational and medicinal cannabis laws, it became clear that cannabis wasn’t just generally harmless; it was also a product that people were willing to pay big for.
As “cannabusinesses” began to coalesce into the cannabis industry, CBD floated to the forefront as a potential selling point, a non-stoner alternative that would still rake in money: all the chilled-out effects of smoking weed, but without the goofy high associated with THC consumption. Weed is for comp lit professors who make you call them “Cheryl” and dudes who look like Ed Sheeran; CBD is for your aunt who tweaked her wrist on a yoga retreat in Bali but is absolutely terrified of getting high… or for anyone, really. Even major retailers like Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens now sell “wellness” goods with CBD in them, and products that claim to contain CBD are available pretty much everywhere else.
By the middle of 2019, it felt like we had CBD in every format, for every problem. Sleep problems, anxiety, and inflammation are a few of the most common issues CBD’s proponents claim it can solve. Now, we have CBD skincare, CBD gummies, CBD Juul pods, CBD lube, CBD workout gear… pick a vaguely wellness-related product, and I believe from the bottom of my heart that I can find you a version wellness product that incorporates the trendy cannabinoid. But a mere six months later, CBD excitement has drastically tapered off. How did CBD become so violently popular? Why did its popularity end? And if a coffee shop in a forest offers to “add CBD” to any beverage for the low, low price of $4 but there’s nobody around looking to de-stress with a latte, is it still a scam?
There are a few schools of thought on why CBD caught on so quickly and widely in the first half of the year. Vox attributed its popularity to the overall popularity of herbal supplements (an industry with a global net worth that’s expected to swell to $8.5 billion by 2025), the “anxiety economy,” defined as products “pitched as reducers of the mild panic of everyday life”: Who doesn’t have trouble getting eight hours of restful sleep every night? Who doesn’t experience anxiety, on some level, every day? Whose back or head or knees don’t kinda hurt every once and a while?
CBD feeds perfectly into our need to pathologize every moment of discomfort we experience, and promises to fill in the chasm between how we think we should be feeling and how we actually feel, as loneliness nips at our heels and the demands of late-stage capitalism wring us out. But the idea that we’re all just a few well-timed CBD gummies or drops of a CBD tincture away from living our best lives flies in the face of reality. We’re stressed, tired, and experiencing at least some amount of inexplicable back pain because we live in stressful and exhausting times, rife with structural failures, uncertainty, and horror. CBD can’t fix that.
A regulatory fluke definitely aided in CBD’s rise: In December 2018, lawmakers inadvertently ensured CBD’s superstar status by federally legalizing hemp, or cannabis that—per the legal definition—contains less than .3% THC… but has no limit on CBD content. CBD now occupies a legal gray area that the FDA has doggedly refused to define, saying it “recognizes the significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, particularly CBD,” in its most recent statement. “There are many unanswered questions about the science, safety, and quality of products containing CBD” the agency said, questions it is apparently trying to answer with “data gathering through a public docket.”
In the meantime, various waves of CBD or would-be CBD products have cycled into the marketplace without any federal regulations or restrictions in place, and the inconsistency of effectiveness was, in part, what caused the surge to subside. Sure, it’s still illegal to add CBD into beverages or food items, but try telling that to any of the companies who do it anyway, because the FDA barely does. There’s actually a difference between CBD that’s derived from hemp, which is what you’re getting if you buy a product (legally) made and sold in a prohibition state, and CBD derived from weed—so much so that hemp-derived CBD is actually illegal in California.
There’s also a difference between CBD isolate, a pure form of the cannabinoid, and full- or broad-spectrum CBD oil, which contains other chemicals present in cannabis. And despite the fact that there are already entities willing to certify CBD’s quality out in the world, doing their thing, a unified verification system would go a long way in closing the gap between the CBD content products claim to have and the reality. Tests have shown CBD retailers consistently fudging the numbers since 2017, with various products containing way less or way more CBD than the packaging claims.
For all its foot-dragging about actually regulating CBD, the FDA did play a key role in one of the biggest factors behind the hype: CBD has actually been proven effective (and FDA-approved) in the form of Epidiolex, an anti-seizure medication for patients with epilepsy. Preliminary research also does suggest that CBD may be effective at combating inflammation, aiding sleep, and, yes, reducing anxiety.
CBD cementing itself in the culture may have even been a part of the onramp weed needed to hit a critical mass of acceptance. This election cycle, forming a position on ending weed prohibition is basically a prerequisite to running for president. In 2019, the majority of Americans are ready for legal weed: Support for cannabis legalization hit a 50-year peak as of mid-November, with two-thirds of the U.S. population saying cannabis use should be legal. But despite legalization’s overwhelming popularity and the steady increase in states giving weed the green light (sorry), we still don’t have legal pot on a national scale. Instead, especially in states still caught in the clammy grip of prohibition, we have CBD.
But CBD wasn’t everywhere because it’s a miracle drug; CBD was everywhere because people want to believe in the existence of a miracle drug (preferably a legal one), and because it’s a billion-dollar industry that’s projected to get bigger. Retailers all want a piece of the action, especially because their participation has had next-to-zero legal consequences. Sure, individuals can get fired when CBD shows up as THC on a drug test (or if their “CBD-only” product isn’t as pure as purported), or arrested for driving hemp across state lines when it gets mistaken for bud by poorly trained state troopers. But companies can peddle CBD with impunity, so there’s a CBD product for any of your orifices and then some. And if everything goes according to cannabusinesses’ plans, that won’t be changing any time soon.
In fact, the best thing about the current era of CBD is that, as long as products are uncontaminated and correctly labeled, there are pretty minimal health risks involved in shooting it back and trying to grab a good night of sleep, or a productive day’s work, or whatever. In fact, the most damning refrain from CBD haters is that it doesn’t… really… do anything. And if the worst-case scenario for a wellness trend is that it causes you to spend a few extra dollars, then, well… at least it’s not straight-up dangerous. But as the legal cannabis industry surges forward, it’s probably best if we raise our standards a little bit higher than “not actively toxic.”
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