LINWOOD — In early April, Relievus, a Mount Laurel-based chain of 27 pain clinics across the Philadelphia suburbs and South Jersey, including Linwood, received a scorching letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The agency called the company’s medical claims about its branded CBD oils and tinctures “egregious.”
Not long after, the company said it was done selling the products. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a cannabinoid usually extracted from the cannabis cousin plant hemp that, unlike THC, does not make the user high.
While experts say more research needs to be done on CBD and its claims, proponents are adamant it has benefits, and its newfound popularity in South Jersey health stores suggests the market is following suit.
“I have osteoarthritis, and I was in a few car accidents which resulted in about 22 injuries to my body,” said Stevi Leith, 34, a manager at Bonterra Market in Egg Harbor Township, which sells CBD products. “Every day I’m completely uncomfortable and in some kind of pain, and for a lot of years I was just living with it because I refused to take the prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, that all my friends are dying from.”
Bonterra sells CBD teas, salves and chocolate bars, Leith said. She’s found them useful, and they’re popular among customers, including some who deal with seizures.
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If you consult the internet, you’ll be told CBD is a cure-all, that it treats everything from clinical anxiety to cancer. According to previous reports, Relievus’ website said its products could help with schizophrenia, cervical cancer and more.
Though the research isn’t extensive, university studies have backed up some of its tamer claims, like its value as an anti-inflammatory. And despite the FDA not recognizing CBD, supplement stores in the area have received only a formal condemnation from the agency. It’s a legal and scientific gray area, cannabis law experts say.
Retail sales of CBD consumer products in 2018 were estimated to reach as much as $2 billion, according to investment firm Cowen & Co. By 2025, that figure could hit $16 billion in retail sales, the firm predicts.
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“I think it’s our quest for a panacea. We have this utopian belief that we’re gonna find one thing that cures everything,” said Dr. Donald Abrams, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of California-San Francisco who has been studying cannabis-as-medicine since 1997. “I don’t think that’s the way the world works.”
The potential for profit has driven some outlandish marketing about CBD’s efficacy.
“If the product is very popular, then there’s a lot of financial interest, so to speak,” said Steven Chang, a registered pharmacist and clinical nutritionist who owns Essential Elements in Northfield, which carries CBD. “People tend to exaggerate the claims. Really, you cannot do that because the FDA has very strict guidelines on how you’re making claims because you have not really gone through placebo-controlled double-blind clinical trials to substantiate your claims.”
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At Essential Elements, in business for 22 years, CBD has been “very popular,” said Chang, 64, of Absecon.
According to an article from the Harvard Health Blog, because the isolate is mostly unregulated, it can be difficult to be sure what you’re getting when you purchase CBD. But studies have shown improvement with patients suffering from anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia, the article notes. Abrams said one study of 24 people showed improvements in social anxiety in the 12 participants given CBD, and one report dating to 1982 said CBD should be investigated as medicine for those with seizures. And last year, the FDA approved Epidiolex, a CBD oral treatment for seizure reduction.
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Abrams is in the middle of an observational study of patients at three clinics and three dispensaries in California and Chicago, surveying CBD patients on the products they’re buying, what they’re buying them for and whether they work.
“Because there’s just no data on CBD,” he said.
The legal side of things is blurrier.
Because CBD products are typically extracted from industrial hemp, and not standard marijuana, which remains a controlled substance on the federal level, the Drug Enforcement Administration is out of the picture, said Steve Schain, an attorney in Philadelphia. It can be a food additive, a health and wellness product, or a beauty supply product.
The FDA is chiefly concerned if a product is ingestible, like food additives and health supplements, leaving more outlandish products, like CBD bath bombs, to sit on shelves unexamined.
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The problem arises, he said, when a company is too cavalier with its advertising or if someone makes a complaint.
“Let’s say this is the Garden State Parkway, and let’s say it’s posted 65 mph,” Schain said. “Well, you know as well as I do, every car going 72 can’t get stopped.”
Still, CBD is firmly on the agency’s radar as its popularity booms.
“What the FDA has said very clearly is that if you make claims about CBD that are unsubstantiated — which almost all of them are, because you couldn’t do research for the last, what, 70 years — they’re going to come after you,” said attorney Bridget Hill-Zayat, who specializes in the energy and cannabis industries. “Maybe that’s OK. … I’ve seen people making claims about CBD that it’s gonna stop cancer cell growth. That’s a problem.”
What is for certain though, merchants say, is that CBD’s popularity is evident, and many who use it for pain, anxiety, anti-inflammatory purposes or epilepsy find it helpful.
“It’s kind of just an overall relief from the edge that’s happening within your body,” Leith said. “And I’m still able to be 100% functional in my brain. … That’s a good thing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.