Since scientific researchers identified cannabidiol in 1940 and declared CBD to have no therapeutic value, the molecule in cannabis that benefits bodies but doesn’t mess with minds has been misunderstood and maligned.

In cannabis’ late-20th century prohibition era, black-market growers eschewed plants rich in non-intoxicating CBD in favor of money-making strains high in THC, pot’s primary intoxicant.

Today, many people believe — and an increasing body of scientific research indicates — that CBD, whether derived from heady cannabis or its sober doppelganger hemp, is a super-cannabinoid capable of reducing epileptic seizures and cancer tumors, preventing Alzheimer’s and easing menstrual cramps and anxiety without any mind-altering effects associated with cannabis.

Yet across the United States and even in California, historic ground-zero of medicinal cannabis and legalization movements, CBD is both legal and illegal, lionized and demonized.  


“Frankly, CBD’s controversial because CBD comes from cannabis,” said Martin Lee, the Bay Area author and activist who’s studied CBD for two decades and helped re-introduce CBD strains among Northern California growers in 2009. “CBD’s controversial because of America’s tortured history with cannabis.”

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In California, CBD derived from regulated and taxed cannabis is legal, available in psychoactive and non-psychoactive lab-tested products sold in state-licensed cannabis stores. CBD derived from hemp is unregulated, untaxed and illegal yet available in convenience stores, natural foods stores and online from in un-tested oils, tinctures and gummy candies.

Fueling the controversy, the California Department of Public Health updated its position on CBD in July, declaring CBD is unfit as a food ingredient or dietary supplement for humans or animals. California said it’s following the Food and Drug Administration, an agency of the federal government, which itself maintains cannabis and hemp prohibition in most states.

The CDPH’s prohibition announcement had a chilling effect on some breweries, bars and cafes that were infusing beer, cocktails and juices with 5-mg elixirs of isolated CBD molecules.

While the state’s ban is emboldening some Southern California entrepreneurs to open CBD boutiques, San Francisco’s Can-Can Juice Cleanse shop halted plans to infuse fresh-pressed raw fruit and vegetable juices with CBD, including a full-spectrum hemp extract containing terpenes and flavonoids, non-intoxicating compounds that work in concert with cannabinoids and influence plants’ aromas, flavors and effects.

“I truly believe CBD and the hemp plant have been missing from our diet,” said Teresa Piro, owner of the tiny Pacific Heights shop that delivers throughout the Bay Area. “But we’re in a holding pattern after the recent memo.”

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Like other entrepreneurs, Piro is hoping for clarity and relief from the current federal Farm Bill, which contains a provision expanding on a limited program and legalizing cultivation, processing and extraction of industrial hemp containing 0.3 percent THC or less, close to the legal allowable alcohol limit for non-alcoholic beer.

If hemp is legalized, the hope goes, the Food and Drug Administration — and theoretically the California Department of Public Health —  would end CBD prohibition.

“What’s compelling about CBD is that its therapeutic potential highlights the contradictions in federal policy,” Lee said. “It’s a controlled substance but it’s available everywhere. It’s federally illegal but it’s in gas stations in Bakersfield. There is a huge consumer demand for CBD.”

Congress has until Sept. 30 to pass the Farm Bill.

Lee, for one, doesn’t have the highest hope.

“It’s just a big mess,” he said, “because, fundamentally, marijuana is illegal and it shouldn’t be.”

Lee, who co-developed Care By Design and its line of vape cartridges, capsules, tinctures, topicals and edibles containing varying ratios of CBD:THC sold in dispensaries, blames both the United and California for CBD’s mass-market uncertainty and unreliability.

“The federal government and the state have abdicated their responsibility to deal with this in a rational way that puts public health first,” Lee said. “By keeping CBD unregulated, there’s just no safety and quality assurance.”

More confusion is on the horizon. The California Department of Food and Agriculture is currently developing policies to let California farmers join a limited federal program to grow hemp like a dozen other states, including Kentucky and Colorado, which currently supply the Golden State’s CBD.

“CBD is driving the whole policy discussion,” Lee said. “It’s going to force a change.”

A reasonable, overdue change, many say.

“Hemp is not radioactive,” said San Francisco hemp industry consultant Brian Webster. “There’s no difference between growing hemp or corn or rice. You can make alcohol from corn or rice but you can’t get high from hemp.”

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For those who consume CBD, the humble cannabinoid is the rock star of weed — a dietary supplement that balances body and mind, a botanical aid that relieves inflammation and pain and a wonder drug that improves quality of life in sick children and ailing seniors alike.

“CBD’s at the cutting edge of cannabis in general,” said Lee, founder of the online information clearinghouse Project CBD.

Scientific researchers have identified more than 60 ways CBD interacts with molecular pathways and receptors in human body and brain. Recent studies revealed anti-aging and anti-psychotic properties.

Carrie Tice founded San Francisco’s Octavia Wellness, a senior-focused purveyor cannabis education and products, in search of a remedy for her mother’s Alzheimer’s.

Her mother takes one 5-mg CBD oil capsule per day.

“That’s been most helpful for her sleeping,” Tice said. “And the anti-inflammatory properties in CBD has resulted in a reduction in some of the tangles and the plaque that is in Alzheimer’s. She’s so much sharper than she was 6 years ago.”

Tice uses CBD herself. Following a hysterectomy two years ago, “I went through menopause early,” said Tice, now 49. “That helped me realize the benefits of CBD, which has been remarkable for my hormonal and mood balance.”

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Now, Tice and Octavia Wellness are launching Octavia Herbal, non-THC versions of its oil capsules, tinctures, bath soaks, balms and lotions made from Kentucky CBD. Illinois and Nevada will be Octavia Herbal’s first markets, followed by New Jersey and Florida, two other states with big senior populations.

“Seniors, for the most part, have a real preference for not getting high,” Tice said.

While seniors have physiological issues — older people who’ve never used cannabis have lower tolerances, Tice and Lee both stress — there are also generational and cultural issues.

“Stigmas are going away faster then we realize,” Tice said. “I can’t tell you how much has changed from the days of whispering in the halls of my mom’s nursing home. Nobody understood there was even part of the plant that didn’t get you high. Now CBD is a miraculous compound that allows people to engage in the conversation of healing without the high.”

For some cannabis companies, the current CBD controversy is a stigma best avoided.

GB Sciences is a Nevada cultivator and manufacturer of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis formulations that’s preparing to enter California next year to grow hemp near San Diego for CBD that will be mixed with THC and other cannabinoids in regulated products sold in licensed cannabis stores. CEO John Poss said GB Sciences will not make CBD-only products for over-the-counter retail sales.

“I’m a publicly traded company,” Poss said. “If I start selling a Schedule 1 drug, CBD, in corner stores and there’s no clear state safe harbor, then I put my business at risk.”

Lee see a bigger problem: Pharmaceutical drug interactions occur with high doses of CBD. High doses, he said, are required for CBD isolates, the extracts that contain only CBD molecules and no other beneficial parts of plants.

“Epidiolex is 98 percent pure CBD and is somewhat limited,” Lee said, referring to the Big Pharma drug approved by the FDA and poised for market to treat epilepsy. “It interacts with the majority of anti-epileptic drugs.”

Epidiolex, produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, has an advantage over other CBD products, Lee said.

“Given the political clout of the pharmaceutical companies, it’s just the way medicine is regulated. Single molecules are privileged over whole-plant medicines.”

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Cannabis activists, cultivators, retailers are embracing plants rich in CBD. After decades in pursuit of strains highest in THC during the prohibition era, Northern California cannabis growers started CBD rich strains in 2009, at the urging of Lee and others.

“CBD was rediscovered as part of the medical marijuana experience,” Lee said. “That got the ball rolling. Then in 2013 when CNN broadcast its famous show about CBD reducing a 5-year-old girl’s epileptic seizures, that catapulted CBD to a whole other level and made for a huge demand.”

While THC demand exceeds CBD demand in cannabis stores, Aundre Speciale, director of Cannabis Buyers Club Berkeley and Oakland’s Phytologie, has launched a high-end line of cannabis flowers and pre-rolls from award-winning genetics grown by Molecular Farms of Monterey, including four different CBD:THC ratios for a range of potencies.

Not only do smokers get CBD’s therapeutic benefits, they also get CDB’s modulating benefits — the countering affect it can have on THC, mellowing highs that might otherwise cause anxiety or hyper intensity.

“CBD is the thing I’m most, most, most excited about,” said Speciale, who’s named the new line after herself. “I am a self-proclaimed stoner from way back in the day and I really am enjoying less THC and more CBD so I can actually get high and still be functional. As a business person, as a mom, it’s very important to be able to have that option.”

So what’s CBD’s future? Eventual legalization, some say.

“CBD is an antidote to reefer madness,” Lee said. “When we re-discovered these strains we sensed right away CBD would be a real challenge to the prohibitionist establishment. I said it would be very difficult to justify keeping CBD illegal. I think that’s playing out.”