By Paul Armentano
One in seven Americans say they use CBD products, according to Gallup.
The rising popularity of these products — which range from oils and gummies to topical salves and most everything in between — is staggering, especially when one considers that much of the public had never even heard of CBD two or three years ago.
CBD stands for cannabidiol, one of over 100 distinct compounds found in the marijuana plant. Unlike THC, it is not significantly mood-altering. Instead, many consumers believe the compound helps treat pain, anxiousness, and other ailments.
But Americans’ exuberance for CBD could well be short-lived. That’s because many products currently marketed under the CBD banner are of low or variable quality.
Back in 2017, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that only 31 percent of commercially available CBD products contained percentages of cannabidiol that accurately reflected the products’ labeling. Since then, little has changed.
An October 2019 analysis of 30 leading CBD products by the watchdog group LegitScript.com reported that two-thirds possessed significant deviations in CBD content from what was advertised. Typically, these products contained far lower percentages of CBD than the manufacturer promised — a finding that is woefully consistent with prior analyses.
Investigators also reported that some of the products evaluated in the LegitScript analysis tested positive for either solvent residue or elevated levels of heavy metals — findings that are also similar to those of prior reports.
Other analyses have identified even more problematic issues. Some CBD products, for instance, have tested positive for the presence of THC, the primary psychoactive constituent in cannabis, despite being advertised as “THC-free” — an oversight that could cost customers their jobs if they fail a drug test they expected to pass.
Most concerning, some CBD products have tested positive for added psychotropic adulterants — such as dextromethorphan or synthetic cannabinoid agonists. Exposure to these latter agents, typically found in illicit so-called “synthetic marijuana” products like Spice, can lead to serious health consequences.
All this is rapidly creating a “buyer beware” environment for consumers — and potentially placing them at risk.
This situation persists because the federal government — and the Food and Drug Administration in particular — doesn’t regulate either the manufacturing or testing of these products. Despite the presumption of most Americans, the commercial CBD market is entirely unregulated by the FDA.
This is because, until recently, federal law defined all cannabis-derived products as illicit. Now, the FDA and other agencies are playing catch up, with the federal regulators estimating it could take years before the FDA finalizes rules governing the commercial CBD market.
This intransigence is no longer acceptable.
Currently, the heavy burden of overseeing the CBD marketplace falls solely on state regulators in jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis use. But these regulations are not consistent from state to state, and are often far from comprehensive.
Further, state-specific regulations typically only govern CBD products that are sold in licensed dispensaries or retail outlets that exclusively sell cannabis products. They may not cover products sold online or at gas stations, which are subject to virtually no oversight.
Congress facilitated the growth of the commercial CBD market by passing legislation in 2018 that, for the first time, recognizes the production and distribution of certain hemp-derived CBD products. But without federal rules, standards, and oversight, this new market is a wild west — rife with questionable players hawking low-quality or even fraudulent products upon a largely unsuspecting public.
The tens of millions of Americans soliciting this market deserve better. It’s time for federal officials to set appropriate standards to govern this industry — so consumers can be assured, once and for all, they are getting what they pay for.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He’s the co-author of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? and author of The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws.