Editorials

EDITORIAL

Let’s rein in the CBD gold rush

 Boston 02/13/19 The National Cannabis Industry Association Seed to Sale covention was held at the Hynes Convention Center. Bottles of CBD tincture from Vermont Pure CBD that were available for purchase there. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Bottles of CBD tincture.

Cannabidiol has taken the health and wellness-industrial complex by a storm. It’s become near-impossible to find a product that hasn’t been infused with CBD, the non-hallucinogenic compound extracted from the hemp plant. Beverages, pet chews, smoothies, burgers — you name it, the exploding CBD industry has you covered.

Covered for what, exactly, depends on whom you ask.

This much is agreed on: CBD, which can be found in both hemp and marijuana, might hold some therapeutic value for pain and anxiety relief. CBD from hemp doesn’t make you high — it just makes you feel better (allegedly). It’s been described by some as a “natural Tylenol and Xanax mixed in together.” That, of course, is an utterly unsubstantiated claim — as are most of its other supposed benefits. The truth is murkier.

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Here’s the big problem: Consumers will ultimately be harmed if they buy CBD thinking it has medical benefits that don’t really exist — or are unaware of risks that aren’t fully understood and disclosed.

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Despite the fact that CBD is everywhere, it still exists partly in a legal gray area . On the one hand, widespread cultivation of hemp in the United States was legalized by Congress six months ago. That means that CBD tinctures, topicals, and oils are legal to possess as long as they’re derived from hemp. On the other hand, the FDA has made it clear it’s illegal to sell or introduce CBD into food, or as a dietary supplement, without the agency’s approval, or to make unsubstantiated medical claims.

States have stepped in to clear the air, with some cracking down on sales of CBD products, and others — like Maine, Indiana, and Colorado — allowing CBD to be sold widely under certain conditions. It’s resulted in a patchwork of state regulations .

The almost-unprecedented scale of the business potential in the CBD market is what’s causing the rush. Sales of products infused with hemp-derived CBD are expected to reach $5 billion this year, according to recent industry estimates. That represents a 700 percent increase from last year.

Everybody wants in, including local hemp farmers. There are more than 100 licensed hemp growers in Massachusetts and all but one cultivate hemp for CBD production. The growers are pushing for a bill in the state Legislature that would deem CBD legal to introduce into the food supply and sell in retail, essentially reversing recent guidance from state agencies siding with the FDA.

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Any other chemical manufacturers seeking to rush an untested compound into the food supply would probably get a frostier reception. It’s an ill-advised, premature piece of legislation, and lawmakers should hit pause. It’s one thing to legalize CBD and another to let the industry write its own rules. “Is it legal for me to buy it?” is one question to clarify for consumers, but a more significant one to address before opening the floodgates to hemp-derived CBD in Massachusetts is, “How much should I take and how can I be sure that what I’m ingesting is safe?”

The FDA is in the middle of a review process to roll out rules that would clarify CBD’s legal status. The agency is sorting through the many open questions about the science, safety, and quality of CBD products. Among them: What are the effects of CBD on special groups, like the elderly or teens, or on types of animals (cats and dogs, for instance, for whom CBD products are available); and what is the aggregate impact of CBD in the body if people consume different products with it?

The medical profession has concerns about the compound’s mass appeal, which is largely based on anecdotal evidence that CBD can help, relieve, or cure a wide array of medical diseases. A STAT story recently described physicians’s reservations: How does a doctor dose CBD? If a patient starts taking it, exactly what should that doctor monitor?

Right now Massachusetts is mostly leaving enforcement of the state’s CBD advisory to cities and towns. “You have to look at the cost of enforcement and weigh in the public health risk against financial resources,” said Marielle Weintraub, president of the US Hemp Authority, a nonprofit group developing standards and a certification process for hemp derivatives. Meanwhile, hemp advocates insist that CBD products are safe. But even if one believes there is zero public health risk in eating CBD-infused food, that still assumes all CBD is created equal. That’s not the case.

The Office of Attorney General Maura Healey agrees Massachusetts shouldn’t blindly buy into the CBD hype. Healey’s office supports the current state guidance as a reasonable, short-term measure until there is better regulation at the state and federal level. Healey’s office said it’s concerned about the untested impact of products (such as CBD gummy bears and candies) on young people and how they have been marketed.

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The new hemp-derived CBD industry is growing far faster than the body of scientific research needed to evaluate it. That argues for caution. Yes, hemp growers deserve clarity, but so do consumers, who still remain largely in the dark on what, if anything, CBD actually does.