.Notorious CBD: With Governor Newsom’s signature, the CBD market can now be regulated

California’s weird, nonsensical legal treatment of hemp has finally come to an end. Last week, Gov. Newsom signed a bill to legalize the sale of hemp-derived CBD in supplements, human and pet foods, beverages and cosmetics. The new law, which takes effect immediately, also paves the way for the sale of smokable hemp, sales of which should begin next year once tax and regulation issues are ironed out.

CBD stands for “cannabidiol,” a component of the cannabis plant that doesn’t cause a high, but is sold as a curative for a range of maladies. THC is the part of the cannabis plant that causes a high, but there is very little of it in hemp: Since adult-use cannabis was legalized in California in 2016, sales of legal, THC-laden weed have taken off, while, oddly, sales of hemp-derived CBD have remained technically illegal. Until now, the only fully legal way to obtain CBD was through a licensed dispensary that sold CBD derived from plants containing THC, not from hemp.

In some cases, the science behind CBD’s efficacy is solid: it has proven to be an effective treatment for certain kinds of seizures, for example. The Food and Drug Administration gave this application the highest stamp of approval when it approved Epidiolex for sale in 2018—the same year that hemp was legalized at the federal level. Epidiolex was the first, and remains the only, cannabis-derived prescription drug allowed by the FDA. Thanks mainly to the paucity of research into CBD, its effectiveness for other ailments is less clear. There are indications, of various levels of conclusiveness, that it might help relieve pain, insomnia, nausea and a number of other health complaints.

But, thanks largely to the lack of regulation of hemp-derived CBD, it has attracted a lot of fly-by-night operators, some of whom make claims for CBD that range from the ridiculous—it can cure erectile dysfunction!—to the outright dangerous—it can cure Covid!. The fact that hemp-derived CBD wasn’t legal didn’t stop people from selling it all over the place: at the counter at hip clothing shops, online and at gas stations and corner stores. It is often mislabeled and, in many cases, has been found to contain very little CBD; sometimes none at all. Investigators have found CBD oil on store counters, with hand-written labels affixed to the bottles with tape.

With Newsom’s signature, the market can now be regulated. Sellers must be licensed, and products must be tested to ensure they don’t contain contaminants or THC. That doesn’t mean the fly-by-nighters will all go out of business, but they will have a tougher time competing against the legal market, as companies with big marketing budgets can now stock store shelves with the stuff.

This is all for the good, but it doesn’t mean that companies with big marketing budgets can’t themselves be sleazy, or at least problematic. The supplements industry is rife with bullshit, and there’s no reason to expect that some legit marketers of CBD will be any different. Supplements makers are just better at staying within the bounds of the law while finding ways to make shaky claims for their products. One need only open a Youtube video and watch an ad for some Dr. Oz–branded weight-loss pill promising that “your belly fat will melt away” to see that just because it’s legal to market a product doesn’t mean that product is effective.

The best bet for consumers might be for them to continue getting their CBD from licensed cannabis dispensaries, especially ones that cater to medical-marijuana users. Often, the staff there will be knowledgeable on the subject and can recommend the right product for a given need.

It must be noted that, according to the federal government, none of this is legal. The FDA has not approved CBD for use in supplements, food, beverages or cosmetics. At the same time, it’s not like the feds are kicking down the doors of people selling the stuff. The California CBD market, just like the adult-use cannabis market, will for a time be bifurcated: legal in the state, outlawed by the feds.

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