CARBONDALE — A new product offered by Family Video that is drawing dozens of new customers through its doors in Carbondale doesn’t fit into a DVD player or gaming console. Late last year, the company began selling cannabidiol, and it has been a real blockbuster for business, according to the store manager.
Most commonly known as CBD, cannabidiol is a component of the cannabis plant. Unlike the better-known cannabis component tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is what results in a high feeling, CBD contains no psychoactive properties.
But a growing number of companies are marketing and selling it to customers looking for pharmaceutical alternatives to everything from reducing headaches and easing arthritis pain to helping children concentrate better at school and calming anxiety in rescue dogs. In addition to Family Video's product line, CBD oil is also being sold at area gas stations, pharmacies, vape shops and vitamin and supplement stores.
But questions abound about CBD oil products.
CARBONDALE — A new initiative to study cannabis has researchers excited across the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus.
Are they safe? Are they legal? What governmental entities are regulating these over-the-counter products, if any?
The answers are murky.
The proliferation of CBD products began with Congress’ passage of the 2018 Farm Bill in December. As the bill became law, industrial hemp was redefined as an agricultural commodity rather than a controlled substance.
Hemp is a type of cannabis plant that contains high levels of CBD, and that contains very low levels of THC, the component that causes a high. With the bill's passage, more and more mainstream businesses began to offer hemp-derived products; some specialty shops had already been selling it.
Despite changes the new law brought about, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration retained authority over hemp-infused consumable products under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Public Health Service Act.
“In doing so, Congress recognized the agency’s important public health role with respect to all the products it regulates,” then-FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement upon the bill’s passage (Gottlieb stepped down earlier this month).
In that same statement, Gottlieb warned that it’s illegal to add CBD or THC into food products sold across state lines, or to market products containing CBD or THC as dietary supplements. This is true even if the added substances are derived from hemp, meaning it has low THC levels, and therefore it does not alter one's mental state.
This is because both CBD and THC are active ingredients in FDA-approved drugs and were the subject of substantial clinical investigations before they were marketed as foods or dietary supplements. Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, it’s illegal to introduce drug ingredients like these into the food supply, or to market them as dietary supplements, he said. “This is a requirement that we apply across the board to food products that contain substances that are active ingredients in any drug."
“Thank you for calling Carbondale Family Video where we now offer CBD products,” is how employees are answering the phone these days. The message is similar when one calls the video store in Marion.
The video stores offer sprays, oil droppers, gummy bears, body and lip balm, water and pet products. The cheapest CBD-infused product is the lip balm; it costs $3. A bottle of CBD-infused water costs $5. But then the prices jump substantially for full-sized products. A 300mg CBD spray bottle costs $60. A 50mg package of gummy bears costs $75. A 1500mg CBD oil dropper goes for $150, which is about a month's supply.
“The reason we sell it is our company's president, Keith Hoogland, had been using it for pain for a long time and he was benefiting from it so much that he wanted to bring it to the community level,” said Emilie Dierks, the store manager at Family Video in Carbondale.
The products are offered through a partnership with Oklahoma-based Natural Native. Hoogland “really liked their organic product line and all of the rigorous testing they go through,” she said.
The products are advertised as all organic, without added chemicals or GMOs. At the store, Dierks handed a reporter for The Southern a three-ring binder to sift through that includes among its contents: a pricing sheet, facts about CBD and the individual products, various hemp testing reports and a food manufacturers license from the Oklahoma State Department of Health for Native Distributing.
Each product includes a lot number that customers can use to lookup its lab test results online, she noted.
Dierks doesn’t just sell the product. She’s such a believer that she uses it herself. “I have lower back and leg pain, and I’m on my feet all the time with this job. I never sit down. So I use it after a long shift and it relieves pain.” Dierks said her fiance uses it as well. He works a second shift, and Dierks said it helps him unwind after stressful workdays.
Family Video in Carbondale began selling CBD-infused products late last year.
“We were one of the first Family Video stores in the company that got it,” Dierks said. And it’s generated a steady flow of traffic since then, she said. New customers are coming in weekly to inquire about the product advertised on large, outdoor storefront signs, she said. Some have never heard of CBD oil before.
So she encourages them to start off with a small sample of CBD spray that lasts about a week. Many then return within a few days to buy a full-sized product as they are quickly transformed into CBD believers and loyal customers, she said. “We are consistently one of the top sellers in the company. We’re doing really well with it. ... It has quickly become a huge source of revenue for us.”
So how is that Southern Illinois stores are able to sell eatable products like gummy bears and water that contain CBD? Certainly, a complex patchwork of federal and state laws governing marijuana, hemp and their use in consumable products make it difficult to untangle the legal labyrinth.
“The rules aren’t clear,” said Aldwin Anterola, an associate professor of phytochemistry and plant secondary metabolism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He’s also the agent-in-charge of the industrial hemp research program at SIU.
Beyond that, he said, there’s so many CBD products flooding the market at once that many businesses may view selling CBD oil products while the market is hot as a risk worth taking. “Will the FDA go after you? If you’re a traffic cop, and so many are speeding, it’s hard to catch everybody,” Anterola said.
But the lack of regulatory clarity also means that no entity is overseeing whether these over-the-counter products contain the ingredients advertised in them, or that they offer the healing benefits suggested, he said.
“We don’t know which ones are legit and which ones are not,” he said. “And it’s buyer beware, I guess.”
Earlier this month, just before stepping down from the FDA, Gottlieb issued additional guidance on steps the agency is taking to evaluate potential regulation changes that could allow for these types of products to be legally sold. Among them, the agency is accepting public comment and a public hearing is scheduled for May 31 for the agency to hear from consumers, businesses and other stakeholders interested in sharing their experiences with these products.
How the products are marketed seems to be the FDA's primary concern. The agency has continued to issue multiple warnings to companies making “egregious and unfounded claims that are aimed at vulnerable populations," he said. In March, for instance, the FDA warned one company that it was in violation of federal law because it was advertising that its CBD oil products were intended for use in the "cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease."
State-approved marijuana dispensaries also sell CBD oil products. Those products, however, must be derived from cannabis plants grown in an approved Illinois cultivation center and sold in an approved dispensary. As such, they are regulated by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, according to Morgan Booth, spokeswoman for the Agriculture department.
The state plays no role, at this time, in regulating the over-the-counter products, she said. “That seems to be a little more complicated,” Booth said. “As far as I can tell, nobody regulates it.” The state, she said, is waiting on additional guidance from the federal government on whether it should be playing a role, and what that role may be. “There’s so much up in the air."
Sydney Waters, a patient orientation and outreach specialist with Thrive Anna, a state registered medical cannabis dispensing organization, said she believes in the healing power of cannabidiol. However, she cautions people against purchasing the over-the-county variety. “It’s not regulated well. Some companies put horrible things in it,” she said. “And we know it doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.
“I would really recommend that people do their research before buying into that. Even a clean, sustainable source may not be what you’re looking for.”
Waters said that’s because she's read studies showing that CBD products with such low levels of THC that it can be legally sold over-the-counter aren’t as effective as those that contain higher levels of THC. Without a higher percentage of THC in the product, it doesn’t activate the healing power of the CBD, she said.
That doesn’t mean that all of these CBD products result in a high feeling, she said. In fact, many do not, such as balms at bath salts for soaking achy joints and muscles. “You don’t get the high feeling at all. But all of the products we sell here contain enough THC that you have to have a medical card to get it.”
Thrive Anna is one of 55 dispensaries licensed by the state of Illinois as part of the state’s Medical Cannabis Pilot Program.
A doctor must certify that a patient has one of 40 qualifying medical conditions, or be terminally ill, in order to access a medical cannabis registry card allowing them to shop at an approved dispensary. The new Opioid Alternative Pilot Program also allows people to access a card to try medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription pain medications they would otherwise be prescribed.
Sorting through the competing opinions on CBD oil is a time-consuming and confusing process, because there are so many out there. For instance, despite Thrive Anna's cautionary note, Jason Griffith said he's seen first-hand the real-life changes over-the-counter CBD oil can bring to individuals and their families.
About a decade ago, his wife, Karen, broke her back. She took Vicodin for years after that in an attempt to mitigate ongoing chronic pain. "She started taking CBD oil about a year and a half ago, and got off all pain medications. I saw it happen right in front of my eyes, so I opened a store." He is the owner of the CBD Store on Division Street in Carterville, directly across from City Hall. Griffith sought the city and chamber of commerce's approval prior to opening, and said almost all of his patients are people in their 50s and 60s looking for alternatives to pharmaceuticals to manage their pain.
Griffith said that his products, like those at Family Video, include a lot number where customers can view lab results for themselves. That the products contain no THC is an important factor for people who have to take routine drug tests, as even trace amounts could get them into trouble at work, he said.
Dr. Jeffrey Ripperda, a family medicine doctor with Shawnee Health Services, said that patients occasionally ask him about the benefits of CBD oil. He tells them he’s skeptical about its benefits because there are so few independent studies about whether it is effective at reducing symptoms that accompany specific medical conditions. The exception to that is the FDA-approved drug Epidiolex, which has been shown to reduce seizures for some children with epilepsy, he said.
Some early scientific tests have indicated that it could cause liver problems, so he cautions anyone with liver disease to avoid it or talk to a doctor first. Otherwise, Ripperda said he looks at CBD oil like he does most supplements or the latest “wonder drug” to hit the market. Most neither cause substantial harm, nor do much to improve a person’s health.
If people who swear its the wonder drug they've been searching for, Ripperda said it may be helping them. It could be because the product has health benefits, or it could be the placebo effect, which is improvement based on a patient’s belief in a treatment, rather than the treatment itself. “That’s a very, very powerful thing that frequently doesn’t get enough credit,” he said.
Ripperda noted that there are studies that have been conducted showing that CBD oil has a variety of benefits. “But the problem is that most of those are rigged, meaning it’s junk science paid for by people who want to put something on the bottle saying it works.”
“That’s not saying it doesn’t work,” he added. “It might. But we don’t have those answers.”