CBD In Food: Is It Safe (And Legal) To Eat?

Feeling anxious? Down? In pain? Cannabidiol — better known as CBD ― claims to relieve what ails you, or at least that’s the message being broadcast from celebrities to Facebook mom groups across the country.

As state and federal cannabis laws continue to relax, you can now buy CBD in everything from jelly beans to carbonated beverages, often with promises that it will make you happier and healthier. But government agencies at all levels are scrambling to figure out how the ingredient should be regulated, leaving the average consumer confused and often misinformed.

So are CBD-infused foods legal? Are they safe to consume? Will they help you live your best life?

The answers are anything but simple. Let’s break it down.

What is CBD, anyway?

“The first thing to be said is that CBD and THC are not the same thing,” explained Dr. Igor Grant, distinguished professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego.

While CBD and THC are both cannabinoids ― chemical compounds found in forms of cannabis ― they work differently. THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, whereas CBD is derived from hemp and does not produce psychoactive side effects.

Those who use CBD espouse other benefits. Jill Trinchero and Celia Behar, who are launching Mellow Out Mama, a CBD candy targeted to moms, were inspired to go into business after seeing positive results from CBD themselves.

“Be it pain relief, anxiety, depression, insomnia or a combo of all of the above, it’s our experience that CBD can help treat all of it while making us more focused and patient without any psychotropic effect,” Behar told HuffPost. “We have each experienced less chronic pain, lower anxiety and depression, better sleep and overall feeling more focused and present with our kids and within our lives.”

But what do the doctors and medical scientists say?

The state of CBD research is promising but incomplete. In 2018, the World Health Organization issued a report that found “CBD is generally well tolerated with a good safety profile. … To date, there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”

“Business is booming. CBD sales in the U.S. are projected to hit as high as $22 billion by 2022.”

Also in 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved its first cannabis-derived drug, Epidiolex, which is a CBD oral solution used to treat seizures from two rare forms of epilepsy.

Studies have also pointed to the potential of CBD for treating schizophrenia, anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia and more.

“The state of the evidence is there are a number of exciting leads but except for epilepsy there’s not a lot of knowledge of the use or correct dose,” Grant said. He added that medical science doesn’t fully understand the mechanisms of how CBD interacts with the human body’s receptors and affects the brain.

Here’s what’s legal and what’s not.

Though industrial hemp — and therefore CBD — has been decriminalized in the U.S., the FDA issued a statement in December warning that products containing CBD cannot claim to have therapeutic benefits unless they have been approved by the agency for that particular use.

The FDA also clarified that because the compound is an active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, it is unlawful to add CBD to food that’s part of interstate commerce or to market CBD products as dietary supplements.

Yet companies, restaurants and cafes are adding CBD to foods and beverages left and right. Some are blatantly ignoring the FDA’s warning, while others are relying on legal loopholes, such as not explicitly saying that their products are meant to be consumed.

Coffee makers like the ones at Strava Craft Coffee in Denver make CBD-rich, hemp oil-infused coffee.

Coffee makers like the ones at Strava Craft Coffee in Denver make CBD-rich, hemp oil-infused coffee.

And business is booming. CBD sales in the U.S. are projected to hit as high as $22 billion by 2022, up from $262 million in 2016.

“It’s still being sold everywhere — like very large name-brand grocers are taking those risks because it’s not a criminal risk and the worst that’s going to happen is they’re going to come in and take it off your shelf,” said Christine Smith, founder of Grön CBD, which sells CBD chocolate, tinctures and skin products in Portland, Oregon.

As CBD lattes slowly become coffee shop staples, health agencies in some municipalities are cracking down. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, for instance, has banned the sale of CBD-infused food and drink in bars, restaurants and cafes, starting later this year. According to departmental spokesperson Michael Lanza, “We are currently informing businesses in New York City that may sell food and drink about this regulation, and have implemented an educational period to help them achieve compliance.” While restaurant owners and food manufacturers won’t be arrested for possessing or selling foods with CBD after the educational period ends on June 30, their products could be confiscated. After Oct. 1, the health department will up the ante and start issuing violations subject to fines as well.

Smith said she needs a team of attorneys to advise her on the complexities of the legal situation. For example, she said that if someone comments on Instagram that eating Grön chocolate helped their arthritis, nobody at the company should reply, “That’s amazing, we’re so glad it helped your arthritis” ― because that would mean the company had indirectly made a health claim.

Trinchero and Behar have also had to adapt as federal regulators respond to the situation. “At first we called it a supplement, but as that has the connotation of it being vitamins and therefore ingested, we now just list what it is in its most basic form, which is hemp-derived oil,” Behar said. “We assume that as it’s candy, our customers will know to ingest it, but we do not make any medical claims.”

What if you’re not making, selling or distributing these products? You’re not likely to get in trouble for merely buying and eating food with CBD in it. Just like the FDA doesn’t hold consumers responsible for buying a mislabeled health supplement, they aren’t expecting regular folks to know the ins and outs of CBD licensing regulations.

So what do you do when faced with CBD-infused food and drink?

Though Grant sees great promise in CBD, he’s dubious about putting it in foods. “From a physician standpoint, I see cannabinoid as another possible medicine. … But the question is, would you put any medication — say aspirin — into Pepsi? To me, that’s crossing a line because people don’t know what they’re taking,” he said.

If you are going to consume CBD, Grant said, it’s a very good idea to check in with your doctor, who might at least be able to advise you about any possible negative interactions with any drugs you’re taking.

For those who do choose to eat or drink CBD-laced products, here are a few additional things to keep in mind.

Since there are no dosing guidelines and different people react differently, Behar suggests starting with a small amount — in their case, one candy — and waiting a half hour to see what the effect is.

Consume CBD food products only from a trusted source and raise lots of questions, Smith said. She suggests asking to see certificates of analysis, certificates of product liability insurance, and test results. If they can’t produce those, then find another product.

“You could potentially be putting something in your body that has pesticides in it or possibly contains levels of lead,” Smith warned. “There’s the possibility that you could have trace amounts of THC that you weren’t anticipating.” In the latter case, you probably wouldn’t test positive on a drug test after a single consumption, but more regular usage could lead to an unpleasant surprise.

In short, there are good people trying to figure out how to use CBD wisely. But you still have to take care of yourself.

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