The Goods

What Does CBD Do? Mostly, It’s Just Expensive.

The cannabinoid compound probably isn’t harmful, and it may have health benefits, but we don’t know what they are yet.

CBD eye dropper hovering over a stack of $100 bills.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images.

Well, Actually is a weekly column by Slate’s Shannon Palus. Each week, she’ll test health and wellness products to help readers figure out what they should try, what they should skip, and why.

Imagine if you could buy cupcakes with … a little Lexapro in them. Or coffee with some Lexapro, mixed in like sugar or milk. Or tinctures laced with Lexapro, sold by your friend from high school on Facebook alongside essential oils, you know, citrus for energy, herbal for sleep, Lexapro oil for feeling calm. Or maybe makeup: Lexapro lotion, or Lexapro mascara.

This is, in a way, the situation we’re in with cannabidiol, known as CBD. I realize this as I speak to Daniele Piomelli, a neuroscientist and the editor in chief of the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, about the current state of the compound. To Piomelli, CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound found in marijuana and hemp, is a promising medicine. It’s one of the many compounds in pot that does not get you high or make you hungry (that’s THC) but could have some medicinal qualities. In Piomelli’s opinion, it “should be treated with respect and care.” I feel sort of weird as I speak to Piomelli about this, because I have a six-pack of CBD seltzers on my way to me in the mail, and once they arrive, I am planning on distributing them to my co-workers as a “fun office experiment.”

It is unclear how exactly CBD works, despite the fact that it is currently very available in many consumer goods. In many studies, CBD has been shown to reduce anxiety—when given to the likes of Wistar rats and Swiss mice. The potential medical and marketing case is incredibly broad: It may even reduce the brain damage that comes with Alzheimer’s, though again, the studies here are on rats or even just cells in Petri dishes. Research in humans only consists of tiny studies so far, and it’s only approved by the Food and Drug Administration for one thing: to treat a severe form of epilepsy. So while it’s probably not a dangerous molecule—many early studies on humans suggest as much—at the same time, “we don’t know what CBD does to a healthy person. We have absolutely no idea,” says Piomelli. Though pot smokers and edibles eaters have been consuming CBD via marijuana for years, the distilled compound, taken regularly, could have different effects. The lack of regulation means that there could be more CBD in those cupcakes than you bargained for, or that sometimes other compounds are mislabeled as CBD, like a synthetic cannabinoid sold as “Yolo CBD oil” that poisoned five patients in December 2017, causing seizures and hallucinations.

The scientific promise of CBD and the fact that it’s derived from a plant (all natural!), along with the massive gap in information on what it actually does, have led to an explosion in CBD products. Even in an age of chemophobia and hyper-carefulness around ingredients, CBD can easily be presented as at once harmless and effective, standing in contrast to proven anti-anxiety medications, which are synthetic, come with side effects, and require a spend-y visit to the doctor. Thus, CBD has rocketed to mass appeal. Some 64 million Americans have tried CBD in the past two years, estimates Consumer Reports, with 1 in 7 of them using it daily. Of the 4,000 people that the magazine surveyed who use CBD for anxiety, 63 percent claim they find it extremely or very effective, and about 7 percent replaced a prescription anti-anxiety med with the stuff. The magazine correctly advises against using CBD instead of medical care and notes that you should let your doctor know you’re taking it, as well as seek out low-dosage options from a licensed dispensary. Consumer Reports concludes with, essentially, kind of a shrug about whether it does anything useful. Is it legal? Again, shrug. (A recent Atlantic article advised against bringing it to the airport.)

Writing a wellness column in 2019 and testing out CBD feels nearly obligatory because of the compound’s sheer proliferation. It came up in an interview I did with a cosmetic chemist, which was otherwise mostly centered around shampoo; he scoffed at it becoming a trend in makeup. (What is CBD mascara even attempting to do? This is a firm skip!) What makes CBD analogous to an anti-anxiety drug—and sometimes even used in place of one—isn’t so much what it’s been proven to do but what it is culturally understood to do. It’s advised as a self-care hack, alongside meditation and cutting down on smartphone time. “CBD Stopped My Anxious Spiraling,” notes an Elle headline. The subsequent essay offers advice on how to find the right dosage. Bed Bath & Beyond sells CBD oil for use in an essential oil diffuser to “promote relaxation.” An email that sits near the top of my inbox as I type this is fairly representative of the constant bombardment of CBD pitches I receive—the subject line asks, “How are you incorporating CBD into your spring routine?” The contents suggest CBD chocolate coins for Mother’s Day, CBD spritzers for happy hour, and CBD smoothies for post-workout recovery.

As much as CBD gives some experts and the FDA pause, its presence is outright amusing. When I told Piomelli about the seltzers specifically, he laughed and said, “that’s amazing,” which is similar to the response I got from Robert Laprairie, a cannabinoid researcher at the University of Saskatchewan. To them, there hasn’t been any research to show that a CBD seltzer would do anything worth paying for. In the seltzer (bearing the playful brand name “Recess”), CBD is delivered in the form of hemp oil, which doesn’t mix well with water. Recess says that the oil is in the form of special, tiny droplets. Laprairie is nonetheless skeptical that a drink would be the ideal way to consume the stuff: “There might not be all that much CBD hanging around.”

This, for consumers, should perhaps be the most pressing concern with CBD products: that they simply won’t do much of anything. It certainly won’t do much compared with the number of things that actually help relieve, say, anxiety (running, therapy, meds). But at any rate, I felt fine distributing the pastel-colored cans to my desk pod at Slate, in a highly unscientific test to see how they made my colleagues feel. (The seltzers, which come in flavors like peach ginger and pomegranate hibiscus, were too flavorful to be realistically deployed in a blind test, which wouldn’t have been very scientific anyway, given the bitty sample size the six-pack afforded.)

The results among four co-workers were mixed, with only one reporting a squarely noticeable and nice-if-subtle feeling. “It feels like I got high a couple hours ago,” one of them Slacked me, noting that he felt pleasantly funny but not euphoric. Not bad for something you can drink in the middle of the afternoon, in full view of bosses. Others didn’t like it though. “Feeling a little more drowsy now but could just be normal afternoon drowsiness!” one noted. “It just makes me feel kind of bloated and confused,” said another. A fourth told me that he felt nothing at all. I drank two cans myself, on separate days. I think I might have felt a bit calmer at first—my best educated guess is that this was a placebo effect. I still barreled into afternoons of complicated reporting with a typical edge of harriedness intact. When it comes to managing anxiety—or any condition, really—I think your money and time are best spent exploring proven solutions. Or even just treats that are less expensive, like a case of ordinary old La Croix.

A can of Recess seltzer.

Recess CBD Seltzer

Time investment: same as normal seltzer
Value: it’s a $5 seltzer!
Effectiveness: questionable
Delightfulness: low
Recommendation: drink a La Croix