CBD Is Already Everywhere. How Will the Government Handle It?
The cannabis plant contains more than 100 compounds known as cannabinoids. Of them, one–cannabidiol, or CBD–presents the U.S. with unique potential in public health and business, as well as a good deal of political and legal confusion. That much was clear at the Silver Spring, Md., campus of the Food and Drug Administration on May 31, as over 120 people spoke to a standing-room crowd at the agency’s first public hearing for information about cannabis-derived products–a number that was whittled down by lottery from the 400 who applied to testify.
Backers say CBD has health benefits ranging from curing insomnia to relieving joint pain. Those claims remain unproved, but the CBD business in the U.S. has nevertheless tripled in the past three years; analysts project the industry will be worth over $20 billion by 2022. But it occupies a legal gray area: local laws on cannabis apply to the compound, but thanks to hemp-friendly provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD products are generally legal if they’re derived from hemp from a licensed grower and contain 0.3% or less of THC (a cannabinoid that, unlike CBD, can get you high). The compound can be found in products from gummies to muscle rubs, available online and maybe even at your local bookstore or burger joint.
So why not classify CBD as “generally recognized as safe,” like vitamin B12 or caffeine? Some analysts think the FDA is concerned about protecting the integrity of its drug-approval process. “If the FDA just said, ‘Never mind, we’ll make all CBD legal to be marketed as a dietary supplement,’ it would be a disincentive for pharmaceutical companies to continue to do clinical research and trials,” says Rod Kight, a North Carolina–based lawyer who represents CBD companies nationwide. An FDA spokesperson confirmed to TIME that the agency is “interested” in how the incentives for the development of cannabis-derived drugs could be affected if “the commercial availability of products with these compounds, such as foods and dietary supplements, were to become significantly more widespread.”
Even once the agency makes a decision, dealing with the genie will be difficult–and likely to get more so as the industry grows. If the FDA regulates CBD as a supplement, it can issue guidelines on things like ingredient concentration and child-proof packaging. But its hands are tied by the fact that the companies don’t have to tell the agency exactly what they’re making. Sometimes they don’t even tell customers. A 2017 study found that 26% and 43% of CBD products tested had lower and higher amounts of the compound, respectively, than were listed on their labels. And while the FDA has taken some action against CBD manufacturers making specific condition-related health claims, many companies are still unabashedly marketing their products as curatives for particular illnesses.