Is there a substance that gives us the health benefits of marijuana without getting us stoned?
Some people think the answer lies in cannabidiol, or CBD. Like the more well-known tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), this molecule is very abundant in cannabis; in some cases, CBD is the most or second-most abundant molecule. And they both come from the same plant, though CBD is mostly found in a different strain, called hemp.
But compared to THC, cannabidiol doesn’t create psychoactive results — and that’s why you see people selling CBD oil you can take by mouth to relieve chronic pain, inflammation, or anxiety. Though you can easily buy it on the internet, CBD falls under the same laws as marijuana, meaning that it’s illegal at the federal level. But it’s not clear whether you’re getting your money’s worth.
First things first: CBD oil definitely won’t have the same effects as smoking marijuana. The active psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, THC, binds very well to the cannabinoid 1 receptor in the central nervous system, says Norbert Kaminski, a toxicologist at Michigan State University who studies the effects of cannabinoids on the immune system. (Researchers only figured out the shape of this receptor last year, and the way that THC binds is responsible for a lot of the subjective effects of getting high.)
CBD simply doesn’t bind the same way and it’s generally not associated with the psychotropic effects produced by THC, adds Kaminski. According to Sachin Patel, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies cannabis, there have been some clinical trials in which participants have been exposed to relatively large doses of CBD without negative effects.
So CBD is safe, and it won’t make you high. But should you shell out for the oil?
Truth is, it’s unknown what its real effects are because there’s not enough research, says Patel. Most of the CBD studies going on right now are focus on cases such as childhood epilepsy that haven’t responded to traditional treatment, or schizophrenia and anxiety. Some rodent studies suggest that CBD might interact with the chemical serotonin, he added. Anti-depressants work with serotonin as well, so perhaps CBD might also interact with serotonin to be effective at reducing anxiety.
Ultimately, says Kaminski, “there’s really a great need for more cannabis studies conducted in people.” These types of studies have been very difficult because historically there has not been much support or funding for research looking at the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids, as opposed to the dangers.
In the meanwhile, the good news is that that even if that hemp oil won’t make your anxiety any better, at least it can’t hurt.