It has been the year medical cannabis hit the mainstream. The government has announced that it is relaxing laws on when cannabis medicines could be given by doctors, following high-profile cases like those of Billy Caldwell, the 13-year-old boy hospitalised by his epileptic seizures after he was denied legal access to the cannabis oil that can help control them. Meanwhile a brand new generation of cannabis medicines has shown great promise (both anecdotally and in early numerous studies) in treating a range of ills from anxiety, psychosis and epilepsy to pain, inflammation and acne. And you don’t need to get stoned to reap the benefits.
Caldwell’s medicine was illegal as it contained THC, the psychoactive compound that smoking weed socks you with. However, the newest treatments under development use a less mind-bending cannabinoid known as CBD (or cannabidiol).
Natural, legal along with no major unwanted effects (up to now), CBD is a marketer’s dream. Hemp-based health items are launching left, right and centre, cashing in whilst the research is in its first flush of hazy potential. Along with ingestible CBD (also sold as hemp or cannabis oils or capsules) the compound has developed into a buzzword among upmarket skincare brands such as CBD of London. Predictably, Gwyneth Paltrow is a proponent from the trend, and contains said that taking CBD oil helps her through hard times: “It doesn’t make you stoned or anything, a bit relaxed,” she told one beauty website.
Meanwhile, so-called wellness drinks infused with CBD are gaining traction. The UK’s first has become launched by Botanic Lab, promoted as “Dutch courage using a difference”. Drinks giants Coca-Cola, Molson Coors Brewing Company and Diageo are all considering launching their very own versions, while UK craft breweries such as Green Times Brewing (formerly Cloud 9 Brewing) and Stockton Brewing Company are selling cannabis-oil laced beers, and mixologists are spiking their cocktails with CBD mellowness. The fancy marshmallow maker, The Marshmallowist, has added CBD-oil flavour to the menu, promising that “you feel the effects immediately upon eating”, without specifying what those effects could be.
While THC will make you feel edgy, CBD does the opposite. In reality, when used together, CBD can temper the side effects of THC. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much CBD in recreational cannabis strains like purple haze or wild afghan; it is far richer in hemp plants.
Whether any one of these CBD products is going to do anyone a bit of good (or bad) is moot. “Cannabidiol is the hottest new medicine in mental health as the proper numerous studies do suggest it has clinical effects,” says Philip McGuire, professor of psychiatry and cognitive neuroscience at King’s College London. “It is definitely the No 1 new treatment we’re thinking about. But although there’s plenty of stuff in news reports regarding it, there’s still not too much evidence.” Large, long term studies are required; a 2017 review paper to the safety profile of CBD determined that “important toxicological parameters are yet to get studied; as an example, if CBD has an effect on hormones”.
McGuire doesn’t advise buying CBD products. You should differentiate, he says, in between the very high doses of pharmaceutical-grade pure CBD that participants in the number of successful studies were given and the nutritional supplements available non-prescription or online. “These could have quite small quantities of CBD that may not have access to large enough concentrations to get any effects,” he says. “It’s the main difference from a nutraceutical as well as a pharmaceutical.” These supplements aren’t allowed to make claims of the effects. “If you’re making creams or sports drinks with CBD, you can say whatever you like as long as you don’t say it can do such and the like,” he says.
Two cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs, manufactured in the UK, are licensed for prescription but only for very specific uses. Sativex has been available in the UK since 2010 and uses THC and CBD to deal with spasticity in multiple sclerosis. And a new CBD-only drug, Epidiolex, was approved in June in the US to treat rare childhood epilepsies, using a similar decision expected imminently for Europe and the UK.
Another concern with non-pharmaceutical products, says McGuire, “is that folks try them and find, ‘Oh, it doesn’t seem to work.’ Or they get side-effects from some other ingredient, because, if you pick an oil or fmavoi product, it’s planning to contain all types of other things which might have different effects.”
You only have to look at the reviews within CBD product on the Holland & Barrett site to view the extent which anecdotal reports cannot be trusted. A lot more than 100 customers gave Jacob Hooy CBD Oil five stars, with some saying they always noticed when they missed a dose (presumably this made them less relaxed, although they failed to reveal whatever they were taking it for), while 93 people gave it one star, saying it did nothing, or was too weak. One couple even stated it gave them palpitations and a sleepless night. All these people had different conditions, expectations and situations. “And,” says McGuire, “you have to remember that anything can have a placebo effect.” While it looks unlikely that the recommended doses of these products will do any harm, McGuire’s guess is the fact doses are so small “that it’s like homeopathy – it’s not likely to do anything at all”.