This has been the year medical cannabis hit the mainstream. The government has announced that it is relaxing laws on when cannabis medicines may be prescribed by doctors, following high-profile cases such as 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 new generation of cannabis medicines has shown great promise (both anecdotally and in early clinical trials) in treating a range of ills from anxiety, psychosis and epilepsy to pain, inflammation and acne. And also 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 brand new treatments under development make use of a less mind-bending cannabinoid called CBD (or cannabidiol).
Natural, legal and with no major side effects (up to now), CBD is actually a marketer’s dream. Hemp-based health products are launching left, right and centre, cashing in as the research is in its first flush of hazy potential. As well as ingestible CBD (also sold as hemp or cannabis oils or capsules) the compound has become a buzzword among upmarket skincare brands including CBD of London. Predictably, Gwyneth Paltrow is really a proponent from the trend, and has claimed that taking CBD oil helps her through hard times: “It doesn’t make you stoned or anything, just a little relaxed,” she told one beauty website.
Meanwhile, so-called wellness drinks infused with CBD are gaining traction. The UK’s first has been launched by Botanic Lab, promoted as “Dutch courage having a difference”. Drinks giants Coca-Cola, Molson Coors Brewing Company and Diageo are common considering launching their particular versions, while UK craft breweries like 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 its menu, promising that “you experience the effects immediately upon eating”, without specifying what those effects may be.
While THC can 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 such as purple haze or wild afghan; it is actually far richer in hemp plants.
Whether these CBD products can do anyone a bit of good (or bad) is moot. “Cannabidiol is the hottest new medicine in mental health because the proper numerous studies do suggest it offers 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 considering. But although there’s tons of stuff in the news about this, there’s still not that much evidence.” Large, long term studies are essential; a 2017 review paper in to the safety profile of CBD concluded that “important toxicological parameters are yet to be studied; for example, if CBD has an effect on hormones”.
McGuire doesn’t advise buying CBD products. You should differentiate, he says, between the extremely high doses of pharmaceutical-grade pure CBD that participants in the number of successful studies were given as well as the nutritional supplements available non-prescription or online. “These could have quite small amounts of CBD which may not have big enough concentrations to have any effects,” he says. “It’s the main difference from a nutraceutical along with a pharmaceutical.” These supplements aren’t allowed phxbop make claims for any effects. “If you’re making creams or sports drinks with CBD, you are able to say what you like as long as you don’t say it will do such and such,” he says.
Two cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs, manufactured in the UK, are licensed for prescription only for very specific uses. Sativex continues to be available in the UK since 2010 and uses THC and CBD to take care of spasticity in multiple sclerosis. Along with a new CBD-only drug, Epidiolex, was approved in June in the US to deal with rare childhood epilepsies, having a similar decision expected imminently for Europe as well as the UK.
Another concern with non-pharmaceutical products, says McGuire, “is that individuals try them and find, ‘Oh, it doesn’t manage to work.’ Or they get side-effects from a few other ingredient, because, if you purchase an oil or cannabis product, it’s planning to contain all sorts of other stuff which can have different effects.”
You simply have to browse the reviews within CBD product on the Holland & Barrett website to view the extent that anecdotal reports cannot be trusted. 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 did not reveal the things 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 as well as a sleepless night. Each one of these people had different conditions, expectations and situations. “And,” says McGuire, “you have to understand that anything may have a placebo effect.” Even though it looks unlikely that the recommended doses of these products can do any harm, McGuire’s guess is the fact doses are so small “that it’s like homeopathy – it’s not going to do just about anything at all”.