Ads pitching cannabis CBD as a cure-all are everywhere. Oversight hasn't kept up
Scientists at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond were concerned when a young man contacted their department last year complaining of a heart-pounding, hallucinogenic high he had neither expected nor wanted to have.
The team, led by forensic toxicologist Michelle Peace, had published a study about mysterious ingredients in vaping liquids. That’s how the man, a graduate student Peace declined to name, knew to tell it about his experience.
He said he had vaped a liquid, from a company called Diamond CBD, that contained CBD, or cannabidiol. A compound reputed to have soothing properties, CBD has been marketed by the fast-growing cannabis industry as an ingredient in sleeping masks, kombucha, Carl’s Jr. burgers and Martha Stewart-backed dog treats. It is not supposed to cause a psychoactive experience.
Peace decided to run some tests of Diamond CBD vaping liquids, some from the graduate student and some bought from the manufacturer. In four of nine samples, all marketed on the company’s website as 100% natural, her lab discovered a synthetic compound, 5F-ADB. That ingredient has been linked by the Drug Enforcement Administration to anxiety, convulsions, psychosis, hospitalization and death.
Diamond CBD has often promoted its products as health aids meant to “help your body to heal and recover” and “to make you feel the best version of yourself.” The company’s parent, PotNetwork Holdings, said in a statement that independent tests did not show “any unnatural or improper derivative.” The company said it planned to run more tests on its products and materials and would issue a recall if it found any problems.
The efforts of cannabis companies to go mainstream could be hampered by CBD advertising that depends on misleading or unproven claims, entrepreneurs and researchers said. Peace compared the marketing efforts of some companies to snake-oil scams in the 1800s, “when guys in wagons were selling sham tinctures in glass bottles.”
“People are taking these products in good faith because they believe somebody is overseeing the quality of these products,” Peace said. “But there’s basically nobody.”
Hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the cannabis plant. Both produce chemicals known as cannabinoids, including CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a psychoactive compound associated with a high.
CBD products derived from hemp are legal to possess under a new federal law, as long as they contain 0.3% THC or less. In marijuana, which is not legal in many states, the amount of THC tends to be greater.
But in the gray area between state and federal regulations, and in the shifting terminology used to describe (and sometimes conflate) cannabis, marijuana and hemp, dubious promotions have proliferated. Some brands have claimed that their CBD is “a lifesaver” and an “unbelievable cure.” The Food and Drug Administration has warned companies to stop making “unfounded claims” that CBD can help treat cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and opioid withdrawal.
Several tests have found mislabeled CBD products, some with more THC than is permitted. Companies have complained about competitors cloning their packaging and selling adulterated CBD products.
“This market was illegal for a long time,” said Ann Skalski, a former executive at Saks Fifth Avenue who handles branding for Double Barrel, which recently marketed a $100,000 diamond-encrusted vaping device. “It might be hard for some of the players to change.”
Cannabis products were once advertised via word-of-mouth or on stickers in bathroom stalls. Now, with growing support for legalization, cannabis ads have appeared in publications like The New York Times, which accepts advocacy ads on the issue of legalization.