How to Shop for CBD
Thousands of the cannabis products line store shelves, but determining what’s safe is up to you
As head farmer at Veritas Farms in Pueblo, Colo., Rianna Meyer has two big concerns when growing her 100,000 hemp plants, a form of cannabis closely related to marijuana.
One is making sure that plants don’t absorb any of the potentially harmful chemicals that might be in the soil. The other is how much of the plant’s two key compounds they contain: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which gets users high, and CBD (cannabidiol), which is gaining increasing attention for its potential health benefits.
As it turns out, those are also two of the most important factors that consumers should consider when choosing among the thousands of CBD products now being sold across the country.
And those choices are soon likely to become even more confusing: The CBD market is expected to multiply at least sevenfold by 2021, to $2.15 billion, up from $292 million in 2016, according to the Brightfield Group, a market research firm that specializes in cannabis. Even Coca-Cola says it’s “closely watching” the growing interest in CBD and its potential as an ingredient in some of the company’s beverages.
Such demand keeps Meyer—vice president for operations at Veritas Farms (pictured above) as well as a retired fire captain and an Air Force veteran—on alert. For one things, she says, “If cannabis plants are stressed out by the weather, they’ll create more THC.”
That’s important to farmers like Meyer, and to consumers. When a plant contains 0.3 percent or less THC, the federal government considers it “industrial hemp,” and by Colorado’s and most states’ reckoning, can legally be formulated into oils, tinctures, topicals, and capsules, and widely sold to consumers. But if a plant has THC levels above 0.3 percent, the federal government considers it marijuana, and even states where it is legal sharply limit where the products can be sold.
In addition to THC, Meyer and consumers also need to worry about whether CBD products have contaminants. That’s because cannabis plants readily absorb heavy metals, pesticides, and other potentially harmful chemicals that may be in the soil or water, says Kyle Boyar, a cannabis scientist at Medicinal Genomics, a company that develops tests that help labs comply with state rules. To protect against that risk, cannabis plants should be tested frequently while they are growing, and finished products should be tested, using validated methods, too, Boyar says.
However, though 47 states have now legalized CBD from hemp, marijuana, or both (see map, below), many don’t require any testing. And among those that do, the details vary considerably. As a result, consumers need to take matters into their own hands and often have to rely on CBD manufacturers to self-police.
Meyer, at Veritas Farms, says consumers should learn as much as they can about CBD products they buy, including where they are grown and whether they were tested for both CBD and THC levels, as well as contaminants. “We’re trying to grow a plant that’s healthy, and healthy for you,” she says.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to the factors to consider when shopping for a CBD product.
1. Decide Why You Want to Use CBD, and in What Form
Of course, the first thing to consider is why you want to take CBD. Though it’s being touted for numerous possible health benefits—and some preliminary research suggests it might help with everything from pain and anxiety to multiple sclerosis and opioid addiction—for now it’s clearly proved to help treat only two rare, but devastating, forms of epilepsy. (Read more about the safe use of CBD.)
And even less is known about which forms of CBD—pill, topical, or drop, for example—might be appropriate. Still, experts do have some advice.
For very quick relief of, say, muscle cramps or anxiety, inhaling CBD may be most effective, via either a vape pen (think e-cigarette) or cigarette-style. For effects within a few minutes, oil drops under the tongue may be useful. Topical lotions, rubbed onto the skin, vary from person to person—some may feel it right away, others not for several hours. On the other hand, CBD in food products is likely to take longer—30 minutes or more—to be absorbed into your system. Read more about the pros and cons of each form.
2. Consider How Much THC the Product Contains
This is important mainly if you want to avoid the head-high that comes with THC, something that is important to many people who are considering CBD. But knowing the THC level can be important for other reasons, too, including how effective a product might be, as well as where you can buy it.
Some research suggests that in some people, CBD may work better when it’s combined with at least a little THC, says Martin Lee, director of Project CBD, an advocacy group that supports CBD research and the author of “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific” (Scribner, 2012). This is called the “entourage effect,” Lee says, the idea that the sum of the two chemicals, plus other related compounds in the plant, is greater than their individual parts.
To be sure, that notion is more theoretical than proven. And only a small amount of THC—as low as the 0.3 percent cutoff required for CBD products made from hemp—may be needed to enhance CBD’s therapeutic effect.
So if you want a product that probably has a little THC but not so much to get you high, look for one made from hemp. Such products have the added benefit of being widely available, including online and in retail stores. (Note that while Boyar and other experts say that CBD products should also include THC levels on their labels, many made from hemp don’t. For that, you need to check a product’s test results, if they are available; see number 4, below.)
Finding a CBD product that’s more than 0.3 percent THC could be tougher. For one thing, you’ll have to be in a state that has legalized marijuana, not just CBD. You’ll also need to go to a state-licensed dispensary to buy it and, in the 20 states that have legalized just the medical use of marijuana, you’ll also have to get a recommendation from a physician. In states that have legalized medical and recreational use—Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington—you don’t need to see a doctor first, but you do need to be over 21. (Maine and Vermont have legalized marijuana for recreational use but have yet to open recreational dispensaries.)
Dispensaries may sell a variety of “CBD-rich” products that are high in CBD and relatively low in THC, including oils, tinctures, topicals, and vaping liquids. They may even sell buds or flower from marijuana strains that have been bred to have very low levels of THC, says Michael Backes, author of “Cannabis Pharmacy: The Practical Guide to Medical Marijuana” (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2014). For example, the strain “AC/DC” can be just 0.5 percent THC, barely above the cutoff allowed for CBD from hemp and much lower than the 20 percent or higher THC concentration typical of most marijuana strains, Backes says.
Still, Lee cautions that some people are much more sensitive to the psychoactive effects of THC than others. So if you want to avoid the head-high, it’s better to stick with CBD from hemp.
3. For Products From Hemp, Find Where It Was Grown
Many CBD products sold online and in retail stores come from hemp, not marijuana. And the source of that hemp can be important.
Most hemp used in CBD products sold in the U.S. comes from Colorado or Oregon (which have long histories with cannabis) or Kentucky (which passed a law to support hemp growers in 2013), or is imported from overseas, says Colleen Lanier, executive director of the Hemp Industry Association.
Among those sources, Lanier considers Colorado to have the most robust hemp program. The state’s agricultural program performs spot-tests of hemp plants while they are still in the field to check THC levels and will investigate the potential use of any illegal pesticides based on complaints. (Note that the 2018 Farm Bill, now in Congress, may make it easier for farmers to grow hemp and expand the number of states where it is grown and tested.)
Products made with hemp grown overseas can be even more problematic, because they are not subject to any state or federal testing, say both Lanier and Boyar. “There needs to be testing results available to consumers,” Lanier says, “and manufacturers should follow the FDA’s guidance for good manufacturing practices.”
So for CBD products from hemp, check labels to see whether they say where it was grown, and look especially for those from Colorado. Not all products, however, include that information. So in a dispensary or a retail store, ask the staff whether they know where the hemp was grown. And for products purchased online, check the companies’ website to see whether it has that information, or contact the seller to ask the same question.
4. Ask for Test Results
Always also ask to see a product’s COA, or certificate of analysis. That document shows how a product performed on tests checking for CBD and THC levels, and the presence of contaminants.
For products made with CBD from hemp, even Colorado doesn’t require testing of the finished product. So any COA for those final products comes from testing the company arranged on its own. Though not all manufacturers take that step, many do, Lanier says. That includes even some companies that use imported hemp, such as CV Sciences, which makes Plus CBD Oil from hemp grown in Holland.
If an online manufacturer or a retail store doesn’t have the information, or refuses to share it, avoid the product and the retailer.
One state, Indiana, has made it easier for consumers to find these COAs. Since July, all hemp-derived CBD products sold in stores in Indiana must include a QR code on their label that lets consumers download a product’s COA to their phone. All CBD products sold at Indiana locations of Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, a Midwest regional chain, now carry those codes, says Jonathan Lawrence, director of vitamins and body care at the chain. “It’s important for any consumer to know what’s in their product and what they’re taking,” Lawrence says.
For even more assurance about a product’s quality, Boyar recommends checking the COA to see whether it says that the lab meets “ISO 17025” standards. That suggests the lab adheres to high scientific standards. Also look to see whether a company uses testing methods validated by one of three respected national standard-setting organizations: the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC), the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), or the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
Unlike hemp-derived CBD products, those made from marijuana must undergo testing—at least in states that permit medical and recreational use of marijuana. In some of those states, dispensary staff are supposed to have the COAs available and be willing to share them with you. If they aren’t, or the COA is not available, go to another dispensary or choose another product.
In states that have only legalized the medical, not recreational, use of marijuana, testing is less consistent, Boyar says. Several states—including Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York—do require some testing of products, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association. But others don’t, including Arizona and Michigan.
5. Look for Products That List the CBD Amount
Look for products that show how much CBD (or cannabidiol, its full name) you get not just in the whole bottle but in each dose, says Lee, from Project CBD. Dosages, which are expressed in milligrams, or mgs, vary considerably depending on the form of the product, and experts often suggest starting with products that have relatively low doses. For example, with tinctures, consider a product that has just 10 mg per dose, says Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. (Read more about the safe use of CBD.)
On the other hand, take extra care with products that list only the amount of total “cannabinoids” they contain, not specifically how much CBD is in them. Those cannabinoids could include not just CBD and THC but dozens of other related compounds. Companies may take that labeling approach because they hope it will attract less scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration, Lee says.
Some of those products, which don’t include the CBD amount on their label, market themselves as “whole plant” or “full spectrum” hemp products, or say they are rich in other compounds from the plant, such as various fatty acids. Though it’s possible that those other compounds provide additional health benefits, that’s still uncertain. In those cases, you could check the COA, if they have one, which should list how much CBD or THC they contain.
6. Know What Other Terms on the Label May Mean
CBD product labels sometimes say that they were produced with “CO2 extraction.” That can mean that the CBD and other ingredients were removed from the plant using high-pressure carbon dioxide gas, not chemical solvents. Depending on the type of CO2 extraction used, the technique might be able to extract not just CBD but other cannabinoids (see number 5) in the plant, Boyar says. However, that approach is not necessarily better, because it’s unclear whether those other compounds provide additional health benefits. And it may not be safer, either, because some forms of CO2 extraction still use solvents, Boyar says.
Some CBD products also describe themselves as including or coming from “hemp oil.” In some cases, manufacturers use that term to mean CBD oil, which is oil rich in CBD made mainly from the leaves, resin, or flowering tops of hemp plants. But “hemp oil” more often, and more properly, refers to oil made from the seeds of the plant, and contains only very small amounts of CBD, says Lanier at the Hemp Industries Association. That oil is often included in hemp-based soaps, cosmetics, and similar products.
7. Avoid Products That Make Sweeping Health Claims
Making health claims, even just the ability to treat relatively minor problems like migraines, is legal only for prescription drugs, which undergo extensive testing for effectiveness and safety. And the more dramatic the claim, such as the ability to cure cancer or heart disease, the more skeptical you should be. Since 2015, the FDA has cracked down on dozens of companies selling CBD products online for making unallowed health claims.
8. Watch Out for Vaping Products With Propylene Glycol
Vape pens produce little smoke and are easy to transport and use—plus they can easily go undetected. But the concentrated oils used in vape pens of CBD might contain a solvent called propylene glycol. When burned at high temperatures, propylene glycol can degrade into formaldehyde, a chemical that can irritate the nose and eyes and could increase the risk of asthma and cancer. To avoid this problem, consider CBD vape pens that advertise “solvent-free oils.”
What to look for when you shop for CBD products, including whether they comes from hemp or marijuana and how much THC they contain.
What Should You Look for When Choosing a CBD Product?
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These days, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about CBD, which stands for cannabidiol. The cannabis-derived compound has been gaining tons of traction in America recently, and it’s popped up in all kinds of products, from sparkling water and chocolates to tinctures and teas. But there’s still so much mystery surrounding CBD that even if you are interested in giving it a go, knowing where to start can be tricky. Here, we’ve talked to some experts for tips on what you should look for when choosing CBD products, and they’ve cleared up a couple of myths about CBD as well.
First things first: will CBD products make me high?
When many people hear “CBD,” they immediately think of the stigmas associated with marijuana, because both are products of cannabis. However, CBD is lacking the psychoactive element of marijuana—THC, which stands for tetrahydrocannabinol. Because the “high” feeling marijuana provides is brought on by THC, not cannabis itself, CBD products will not produce the same psychedelic effect.
Is it legal?
In late 2018, President Trump signed off on the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (aka the 2018 Farm Bill), which means that the federal government now fully recognizes hemp as a legal agricultural product. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant that’s grown specifically for industrial purposes.
So, now that that’s out of the way, what is CBD used for?
CBD offers a non-toxic, typically side-effect-free, natural alternative to many pharmaceutical drugs. In some cases, CBD might even be more affordable than pharmaceuticals.
“CBD is used for many things,” explains Aaron Riley, the CEO of CannaSafe, a full-service testing laboratory for cannabis cultivators and distributors to ensure that they are in full compliance with all regulatory requirements. “Personally, it helps me relax and reduces anxiety. Others may use it for pain relief and general wellness, among other things.”
CBD is often used to help with pain and inflammation, IBS, anxiety, depression, nausea, migraines, and high blood pressure. It’s also been scientifically proven to benefit those who suffer from seizures, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Epilepsy Research.
“While it’s not a miracle drug or a cure-all for anything and everything that ails you, it can provide safe therapeutic benefits without the side effects that can occur with some pharmaceuticals,” Colorado-based dietitian Donna Shields, MS, RDN, who’s the co-founder of the Holistic Cannabis Academy, previously told us. “It does not have the side effects of pain relievers such as opioids and NSAIDs.”
On top of that, the World Health Organization notes that, “In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential … To date, there is no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
How do I know if a CBD product is safe?
There are several ways a consumer can know if a product is safe or top of the line, and the first is to be sure it’s been tested.
“There isn’t a lot of transparency of quality control in the CBD market, so it’s about finding a brand that is trustworthy and actually tests their products, which is few and far between,” says Riley.
When looking at labeling, Riley suggests looking for potency claims and indicators that a safety test was performed for pesticides, solvents, and heavy metals.”The best way is if a producer uses a QR code [aka a barcode] with lab results for that product’s batch,” he notes.
The other thing to look for is where the company sources their hemp from, says Tim Moxey, the co-founder of Botanica Global, a cannabis edibles company.
“A good CBD company will communicate where the hemp is grown, under what conditions it was grown, and how they extract the CBD,” he notes. “We recommend looking into brands that have a proven record in cannabis.”
What are the red flags when it comes to CBD products?
According to Riley, you want to find a brand of CBD products with positive reviews from credible sources and avoid those that have no online footprint.
Moxey also suggests avoiding products that don’t list a potency or per milligram dosing for their products. “This is important for people who are looking to understand how their body will react to CBD and for them to find a potency or dose that works best for them,” he notes.
Any specific CBD product recommendations?
“Kushy Punch is a good one, so is KOI. Both brands have high product integrity and test at a higher frequency than most CBD brands,” said Riley.
Moxey is, of course, proud of his own Mr. Moxey’s Mints, calling it “one of the most trusted brands.”
“Our focus is on how to best capture differing CBD experiences dependent on what people want,” he notes. That said, Moxey also suggests the California-based Papa & Barkley for CBD tinctures and capsules. “Their approach to infusion and respect for the whole plant really stands out at a time when people are rushing to get to market with products that might cut corners,” he adds.
And don’t forget about your furry friends, too! “The pet wellness brand Austin and Kat is also another great company that makes CBD wellness products for animals,” Moxey says. “They are always expanding their catalog of CBD biscuits and pet oils based on customer feedback.”
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When you're looking at CBD products, you want to make sure you're choosing the right one for you. We consulted experts so you can shop smart.