The San Diego Union Tribune, October 20, 2019
By Peter Rowe
Tinctures, salves, sprays, gummies and caramels are not always what they claim to be
CBD, a compound found in cannabis and hemp, zoomed from obscurity to omnipresence with breathtaking speed.
Relatively unknown just a few years ago, CBD-infused balms, said to help relieve pain and anxiety, now are prominently displayed at CVS pharmacies and Sprouts groceries. CBD shops have opened in Old Town and Pacific Beach, while CBD tinctures, bath salts, vaping cartridges, transdermal patches and other items are hawked at gas stations, farmer’s markets and across the internet.
Claims for these items’s health benefits range from the fraudulent — in July, the FDA warned a Massachusetts company to stop advertising its CBD nostrums as treatments for cancer, dementia and Parkinson’s disease — to the extravagant. A New York firm, Voesh, markets $500 CBD-treated collagen gloves as a way to “deliver an intense dose of moisture and visibly restore skin’s youthfulness.”
“CBD is this generation’s snake oil,” said John Ayers, a UC San Diego Department of Medicine faculty member. “It’s sold as a cure-all.”
CBDs are easily found, but research on this substance is not. Reputable studies are scarce and inconclusive. In an odd twist, regulation is spotty except in marijuana dispensaries. CBD products sold in pot shops often contain significant levels of THC, the compound that makes users high, and are tightly monitored and subject to rigorous testing. CBD items sold elsewhere, with only trace amounts of THC, have no such requirements.
And these tinctures, salves, sprays, gummies and caramels are not always what they claim to be. In May, Miramar’s Infinite Chemical Analysis Lab was hired by Torrey Holistics, a marijuana dispensary, to check a dozen CBD products sold on the open market.
Infinite Chemical found that 11 of the 12 did not contain the level of CBDs claimed on the label. The most blatant offenders, a hemp cream alleging 1,000 mg of CBD and a hemp extract boasting 3,000 mg of CBD, had none.
Worse, three products — including a CBD lip balm advertised as “all natural and chemical free” — were laced with pesticides.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West right now,” said Jayneil Kamdar, Infinite Chemical’s lab manager.
“There are no regulations in place now for CBDs,” added Mickey Wilbanks, the company’s public relations representative. “You really don’t have to get tested for pesticides or heavy metals.”
While unscrupulous CBD companies may overpromise, other converts to the cause insist that this compound holds extraordinary promise.
“We have an opiod epidemic raging,” said Klee Irwin, founder of a Los Angeles “nutraceutical” company, Irwin Naturals. “In America, we are over-medicating ourselves. We are four and one half percent of the world’s population, yet we are consuming 80 percent of the world’s medications.”
Paul Klotar, the San Diego-based co-founder of Seabedee, notes that his company’s most popular products are used for pain or anxiety relief. Tinctures and gummies contain CBDs, trace amounts of THC — no more than .3 percent by volume — and terpenes, elements extracted from lavender plants, lemon and pine trees and other natural sources.
“All,” Klotar said, “help chill you out, calm you down.”
Darius Allensworth, a former college and Canadian Football League player, said CBD oils help him combat persistent inflammation.
“People don’t get how consistent pain can be for athletes,” Allensworth said, who was a cornerback on the UC Berkeley team from 2014 through 2017. “We’re expected to just play through it.”
Yet Allensworth was leery of painkillers, having been prescribed these medications after a high school knee injury.
“It felt like I was floating off my bed,” he said.
Worried that painkillers could cause long-term damage to his body, Allensworth was relieved when he discovered CBD. “I felt like I had a lot more energy,” said Allensworth, now a partner in Seabedee. “There’s no crash after using it.”
The NCAA bans the use of CBD and other cannabinoids by college athletes, but the World Anti-Doping Agency recently lifted its prohibition of these substances. Companies like San Diego’s Nanocraft CBD hope to appeal to health-and-fitness enthusiasts, marketing this product as an effective way to combat pain and anxiety, without the mind-altering effects of marijuana.
“We try and create products around different areas and each one of them is geared toward health,” said CEO Stefan McKellar.
Yet industry figures admit they walk a fine line when touting the benefits of their products.
“There is a big disclaimer with everything you say in the CBD world,” Klotar said. “We are not doctors. We are not prescribing this to you. But this may help you. You can give it a shot.”
Testing ‘a big plus’
What, though, is in that shot?
Seabedee’s “Anxiety Blend” CBD oil comes in a box marked with a QR barcode. When scanned, it downloads a report from Infinity Chemical Analysis, giving THC and CBD levels from this unit’s batch. (When the Union-Tribune tried this, it found that there were 544.2 miligrams of CBDs per unit, somewhat more than 500 miligrams listed on the box.)
Also listed: terpenes. This particular batch contained limonene, a compound extracted from the skins of citrus fruit. The report also noted the absence of residual solvents, microbials, pesticides and heavy metals.
Many CBD companies don’t have their products tested, said Infinity Chemical’s co-founder David Marelius, and those that do often have limited aims.
“Usually,” Marelius said, “CBD products are just noting potency only. If they are actually doing safety testing, that’s a big plus.”
Another big plus, said John Rost, would be more regulations for manufacturers.
“They could be making it in a crock pot in their kitchen and you’d never know,” said Rost, owner of Thrive CBD in Pacific Beach.
While critical of many in the industry, Rost is a believer. After knee surgery more than a decade ago, Rost found that a Swiss company was selling a then-obscure treatment.
“I couldn’t believe how well it worked,” he said. “It helped me sleep as well, and I wasn’t drowsy the next day. I was not worrying about so many things.”
Today, Rost runs a factory in Santa Ana, where he extracts CBD from industrial hemp and then packages his products. Unlike many manufacturers, he would like to see more regulation, in part to drive out the industry’s bad actors.
“You see some products that are mislabeled,” Rost said. “A lot of companies are just in this for the fad.”
Charlatans rush in
CBD is shrouded in mystery, in part due to federal law classifying all cannabis-derived compounds as controlled substances. That changed with the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed restrictions on CBD research. Those studies, though, are still in their infancy.
As a result, said San Diego State University’s Joy Phillips, most of what we “know” about CBD is anecdotal.
“People are having to test this stuff on themselves,” said Phillips, an immunologist, “because yahoos like me are being prevented from doing basic research saying, ‘Hey! This is where it works. This is where it doesn’t. And oh my gosh, this is where it’s dangerous.’ I think we should test this somewhere other than on loved ones in the first round.”
So far, the FDA has licensed only one CBD drug, Epidiolex, a treatment for rare forms of epilepsy.
Into the void created by the lack of authoritative studies, charlatans have rushed in.
This year, a Washington company marketed its CBD gels as “a viable option” for minimizing the debilitating side-effects of Alzheimer’s disease. A New Jersey firm advertised its CBD salves and oils as an effective remedy for cervical cancer, depression and psychosis. A Florida company selling organic CBD hemp oils cited an “abundance of evidence to support the use of CBD as an anti-cancer agent.”
All of these claims were disputed by the FDA, which sent each company a warning letter demanding they halt these campaigns.
Yet the outlandish, unfounded claims continue, racing far ahead of science.
“The fundamental health questions,” UC San Diego’s Ayers said, “remain unanswered.”
Union-Tribune intern Hafsa Fathima contributed to this story.