It looks like pot, can be vaped like pot, even eaten like pot. But pot, it is not. It's called CBD, short for cannabidiol, a buzzy chemical compound that's on a real market high.
CBD is extracted from hemp, in the same plant family as marijuana. But CBD won't have you microwaving pizza rolls at 2 a.m., because it contains very little THC, the stuff that gets you stoned.
It's essentially weed without the high, and those who swear by it say it's helping everything from arthritis to insomnia, anxiety to depression, and maybe much more.
At CBD Kratom in Chicago, sales associate Elijah Olson can barely keep the shelves stocked.
Correspondent Lee Cowan said of CBD's claims, "It sounds like it's almost too good to be true."
"Yeah, and I think for some people it might be," Olson said, "but overall, people are finding at least some relief, it's at least taking the edge off, if not totally helping them out."
Bethany Gomez has been using CBD for her chronic pain. "I mean, we're seeing it in everything from the taffies to gummies and caramels to coffee, pet treats, shampoos, bath balms," she said.
Gomez also happens to be the managing director of the Brightfield Group, a market research company that has been tracking CBD sales. "I have never seen an industry grow this quickly, and I've never seen an industry with so much headwind."
Last year the U.S. market hit about $600 million. But Gomez forecasts that in as little as five years, it's likely to blossom nearly 40 times that, making CBD a $22 billion a year market.
She said, "Over the past year, it's grown by more than 200%. And that was with the market being federally illegal until December 20, when the Farm Bill passed."
Yep, the Farm Bill. Hemp, once a common crop in the U.S., got lumped together with marijuana and banned back in 1937. But last year's Farm Bill lifted that ban. So, as long as it has less than 0.3% THC and is grown by licensed farmers, hemp is legal.
But that doesn't mean the CBD derived from it is, at least not entirely. According to the FDA, it's still against the law for CBD manufacturers to make any health-related claims about their products. And it's warned companies (with mixed results) not to add CBD to food. That's because large scientific studies on CBD are way behind its newfound popularity. Even what dose to take is in question.
"We're having people consuming this compound in large quantities, and we don't know the full health impact," said Yasmin Hurd, a professor at Mount Sinai's School of Medicine in New York. She says CBD is showing promise, but a healthy dose of skepticism sure wouldn't hurt.
"It's not going to work for everyone," she said. "No drug works for everyone."
that's now in use to treat seizures associated with certain forms of childhood epilepsy. And Hurd's own research suggests that CBD may also curb addictions to heroin and other dangerous opioids. "The research to date gives us a big promise on which to build," she told Cowan.
Laura Fuentes is threading the needle between the scientific and anecdotal evidence. She said she was skeptical at first. "I started making products way back, and we gave them to friends and family. And it started working. And I was like, What? What's happening here? Like, it's working."
The one-time pharmacist jumped into the CBD market with both feet, trusting that the research and the regulation will soon follow.
Cowan asked, "So, you must have a pretty strong faith in what this does for you to give up your career to do this."
"I do. I have a really strong faith in it," Fuentes replied.
"You don't know exactly what the potential is."
"But you know there's some potential?"
"There is great potential," she said.
Her company, Green Roads, is now one of the largest CBD makers in the country, cornering about a 10% share of the CBD market. Its sales force is made up of mostly 20-somethings who feel like they're on the cutting edge of something big.
National chains like CVS and Walgreens have announced plans to carry CBD products in some of their stores. It's already in department stores like Neiman Marcus. So, analysts say it's only a matter of time before CBD is as mainstream as Coca-Cola.
A drug? A supplement? A fad? CBD may just be all three.
For more info:
- CBD Kratom, Chicago
- Yasmin Hurd, director, Addiction Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City
- Green Roads
- Brightfield Group
Story produced by Reid Orvedahl.