Touted as a treatment for a wide range of conditions — including anxiety, pain, inflammation and even cancer — CBD may be the latest version of snake oil. Or perhaps a real relief for numerous ailments.
Nobody really knows which is true because there has been so little solid research on CBD’s effect on humans, experts say.
CBD, or cannabidiol, comes from the hemp plant, a close relative to another member of the cannabis family, marijuana. Both plants contain abundant types of cannabinoids, but marijuana is high in the psychoactive chemical THC, while hemp is rich in CBD, which doesn’t create a buzz but may offer a range of medicinal benefits.
Even without research to back it up, the trendy CBD has been turning up in a vast array of products, including CBD-infused lattes, massage lotions and baked goods. And that means it’s becoming big business, with sales expected to hit $20 billion in the next few years.
Thus far, there is only one use for CBD approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and that’s as a treatment for two rare forms of epilepsy. But that doesn’t stop true believers like Dr. Joseph Cohen, who runs a cannabis clinic in Boulder, Colorado, from making enthusiastic claims.
“It works for anxiety, it works for pain, it works for inflammation, it works for autoimmune disorders, and there’s a slew of other conditions for which you can get benefit,” said Cohen, a former gynecologist.
There’s no clear evidence that CBD works for any of those things, experts told NBC News. “We don’t know any of that,” said Dr. Margaret Haney, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center and director of Columbia’s Marijuana Research Laboratory.
“There’s an enormous placebo effect,” she said. “If you go in with this expectation, with all of society saying this will cure whatever ails you, it often will.”
Dr. Jeffrey Chen seconds that opinion. “Certainly there is therapeutic potential from CBD, but the amount of human data is minuscule, and popular access and consumption have far outpaced the science,” said Chen, executive director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles. “So if you’re going to take it, you have to understand there is little data and you have to be very careful about the source and you need to talk to your doctor about how it might interact with other drugs you are taking.”
With no one regulating cannabinoids, you often can’t be sure what dose you’re actually getting, Chen said. He recommends buying from medical marijuana dispensaries, which are regulated by local governments.
While FDA testing of CBD for use in epilepsy showed that the chemical was relatively safe and free of side effects, it does appear to interact with other drugs, including antidepressants known as SSRIs and blood thinners, boosting their levels in a person’s system because it inhibits an enzyme that breaks them down, Chen said.
Studies in animals suggest that CBD might help with anxiety, pain and inflammation, but Chen is quick to point out that “the majority of times when we see promising drugs in animals they either don’t work in humans or they have horrible, horrible side effects.”