AltHealth: Where Does the Science on CBD Stand?

I began taking an interest in the recent medical findings on CBD after the product itself invaded my online life. I couldn’t open my email without 50 offers cluttering my box – CBD coffee, oil, gummy bears and herbal capsules, all of them promising to change my life. And it wasn’t just my mail. Advertising across social media sites and search engines seemed glutted by businesses hoping to cash in on cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, the newest health fad to hit the market. It is being touted as the universal risk-free panacea for all that ails you. The claims are impressive. It can ease your aches and pains, treat seizures, save AIDS patients who are wasting away … in short, CBD oil can change the face of medicine.

It would be wonderful if this were true. I wondered how much real evidence there was to back all this up. I did find FDA studies that showed CBD had been effective in the treatment of  for the treatment of seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome in patients 2 years of age and older. But all the newest scientific studies that I found discovered serious risks that could be associated with the use of cannabidiol. I could find surprisingly little medical data to support the sensationalized claims of success.

One of the main obstacles standing in the way of clear answers on the risks and benefits of cannabis has been the lack of controlled scientific research; its classification as a Schedule One drug places restrictions on general research. But cannabidiol, one of more than 80 active chemicals in marijuana, has now managed to slip through that net. The FDA has approved a specific drug product that contains the purified substance cannabidiol, one of more than 80 active chemicals in marijuana. The FDA has also approved two drugs containing a synthetic version of a substance that is present in the marijuana plant and one other drug containing a synthetic substance that acts similarly to compounds from marijuana, but is not present in marijuana.

The FDA approval was the starting whistle for the launch of a mass marketing push that caught the attention of aficionados and skeptics alike. Holistic counselors held seminars praising the natural healing powers of CBD. Health food stores carried it. Sweet little old grannies began stocking it in their medicine cabinets. One of the reasons that the public felt comfortable doing this was because of that FDA approval. But after the CBD craze began sweeping the nation, the FDA issued this statement: “The FDA is aware that some companies are marketing products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and that may put the health and safety of consumers at risk … selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of the law, but also can put patients at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective. This deceptive marketing of unproven treatments also raises significant public health concerns, because patients and other consumers may be influenced not to use approved therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.”

The FDA has valid concerns regarding unregulated products. Tests on unapproved products across the board showed widely varying potencies and contaminants in many of the samples. But when I examined the evidence of presented by the research groups that had found potential risks in the medical use of cannabidiol, I discovered a potential flaw in their findings that is seemingly built into the very structure of our scientific medical studies – the FDA can only conduct and approve studies on drugs; they do not conduct studies on agricultural plants. As a result, every cannabis-derived product that has been approved by the FDA, and every current scientific study on CBD, has involved not the plant itself with its 80 active chemicals, but instead the isolated chemical elements which it derived from cannabis in the laboratory. Why is this significant? Because, as science has noted, plants are very complex systems with many active substances. Hundreds of years of research on plant-based medicine has shown that the elements of any plant all work together when the plant is ingested in a whole form. But when elements are separated from their natural balance, they can have a very different effect. Even the leaves of an herb can have an entirely different effect than the root. When you turn any element of a plant into a chemical isolate, you are studying potential of the isolate, not the potential effects of the whole plant. The punch line? Until the FDA approves the Schedule One drug, cannabis, for full studies involving the whole plant, we will not be getting any accurate scientific info any time soon.

My friend Dr. H. sums it up rather well: “Honestly a lot of docs like myself are kind of neutral about marijuana but we just are in a total vacuum as far as good information. It’s going to take a while for information to come in on particular long-term effects and interactions with other medications or disease. But there’s no substitute for just seeing how things go – pot has also been out there for a long time now, so you figure we would’ve seen some of the effects in the general population by now.”