I Was a CBD Guinea Pig

CBD coffee! CBD pasta! CBD face masks! What happened when I consumed nothing but America’s favorite new health supplement.

Justin Peters, Vitruvian CBD Man, trying all the products
Justin Peters, Vitruvian CBD Man. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

On a crisp morning in early October, I went out to buy some kinda-sorta drugs. There are a bunch of newish CBD stores in my neighborhood, each looking like a combination head shop, Bath & Body Works, and medicine wagon. I walked to one near my apartment, screwed up my courage, and went inside.

“I’ve got all kinds of CBD,” the proprietor loudly announced, unprompted, mere seconds after I entered the store. It was the middle of the day, and I think he was happy to have a customer. “CBD gummies! CBD chocolate!”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“CBD shampoo! CBD lotion!” he continued.

“OK,” I said.

“CBD balm! CBD tincture!”

“Thank you!” I said, eager to curtail the hard sell. But I was intrigued by his litany, and also hungry, so I spent $20 on a bar of CBD chocolate. I soon felt vaguely ashamed for eating it. I wasn’t high. I didn’t feel calmed or mellowed. What was the $20 for?

CBD, which is short for “cannabidiol,” is a non-psychotropic component of the cannabis plant, meaning it will not induce any deep thoughts about Pink Floyd. Instead, it offers many of the claimed medicinal benefits of cannabis with none of the fun of getting high. Though proponents of CBD claim that it can be used to treat a wide range of ailments, the actual science is not nearly so settled. “The only thing for which there is good data is severe forms of childhood epilepsy. That’s it,” said Margaret Haney, professor of neurobiology (in psychiatry) at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Haney, who also directs the Laboratory Research on Cannabis at Columbia, is not anti-CBD. “I’m actually conducting a placebo-controlled study with CBD,” she said. “What I am really creeped out about is the marketing of CBD as a medicine—and that’s really what it’s being marketed for—when there is no good data.”

Into this informational void have stepped scores of entrepreneurs who claim, tacitly or explicitly, that CBD does everything: that it will help you sleep, nourish your scalp, impart a healthy glow to your skin, spice up your smoothies, take the edge off your caffeine rush, and bring you to a liminally altered state somewhere on the spectrum between sober and stoned. Inconsistent and limited regulations allow marketers to make their claims with little government pushback, which is perhaps why so many of the CBD products on the market verge on self-parody.

Today, you can soothe your chapped lips with CBD lip butter, recover from your workout with CBD active spray, quench your thirst with CBD sparkling water. You can find CBD products at the grocery store, the mall, and in the checkout aisle at Bed Bath & Beyond, where CBD oil bracelets are priced to move at $14.99. But do any of these items work at all? Which ones are good and which are bad? And, most importantly, what would happen to me—a man who has consumed unsafe amounts of Sbarro Pizza, Christmas carols, and Fox News for journalism—if I took as many CBD products as possible over a two-week span?

I set about acquiring samples of the internet’s foremost CBD products. Soon my living room had filled up with bags, boxes, and vials, and I had devised a plan. I would wash my hair with CBD shampoo, drink CBD coffee and soda, coat myself with CBD balm, and moisturize with CBD night cream before taking my CBD melatonin supplement. I would maintain this sweet, sweet CBD lifestyle until I ran out of products or lost interest, or someone I loved begged me to stop. I checked with a doctor friend before starting this experiment. He assured me that I probably wouldn’t die. That was all I needed to hear! It was time to become CBD Man.

1. The CBD Shower

I began this project the way I start most days: by lumbering to the shower in a stupor. CBD-infused cleansing products often promise their use will revive your tired skin and limp hair. I could not definitively say that this wouldn’t happen—or that it wouldn’t at least mellow me out enough so that I didn’t care.

I squeezed out a healthy glob of Emera Nourishing CBD Scalp Therapy ($30 for 2 fluid ounces), massaged it into my scalp, and reached for a bottle of Emera’s CBD Shampoo ($25 for 8 fluid ounces), which contained both CBD oil and avocado oil, before completing the trifecta with Emera’s CBD Conditioner ($25 for 8 fluid ounces). All of these products functioned well enough, insofar as they did not make my hair dirtier or my scalp fall off, but none of them smelled or felt any different than the regular hair care products I use every day. I guess this is a good thing, as most people do not associate dank, weedy smells with salon freshness.

Most mornings I wash my face with plain old soap, but I leveled up with a dime-size amount of Terra Vida’s CBD face cleanser ($33.50, 4 ounces). “This is the life,” I thought as I scrubbed in the mildly tingly cream. Then, disaster: The cleanser wouldn’t totally rinse off, instead leaving behind a conspicuous residue. I reached frantically for a bar of non-CBD soap to undo my mistake, and felt vaguely like a narc for doing so.

Next I used Kush Queen’s soaked shower gel ($39.99, 6 fluid ounces)—“the world’s first transdermal hemp shower gel”—which smelled like Lemonheads candy. It was functional and cleansing, but it immediately washed off me and down the drain, calling into question its promise of being “transdermal.” After toweling off, I peered into the mirror to see if I could sense a glow. No glow. No buzz. I didn’t feel changed or revived. I just felt clean. What a letdown! I morosely moisturized with Terra Vida’s CBD Hand & Body Lotion ($49.50, 8 ounces)—much better than the face wash!—and went about my day.

Over two weeks I tested more than a dozen CBD topicals and never once felt any meaningful healing, mood-altering, or restorative effects. There were several possible reasons. First, most of these items feature minuscule amounts of CBD. Vertly Lip Butter ($22, 0.2 ounces), with which I diligently coated my lips each morning, contained only 25 milligrams of CBD per package, which means just a fraction of a milligram of CBD per lip buttering. Even if you used all of this lip balm at once for some reason, you would still have buttered yourself with a very small amount of CBD.

Second, there’s a reason why you inhale vape liquid instead of massaging it onto your arms: It takes more than just a mild rub to penetrate your epidermis and send chemicals coursing through your bloodstream. “I think for the most part, the likelihood that you got any CBD at all is pretty negligible,” Haney said of the rubs, creams, balms, and lotions that I used over the course of my experiment. I stopped counting on CBD topicals to change my life and, like a good American, instead sought solace in coffee, soda pop, and junk food.

2. The CBD Meal

Like most people, I begin every morning with a hot cup of coffee. CBD Man, however, starts with a cup from Sträva Craft Coffee, a Colorado-based roaster that offers several types of CBD-enhanced whole coffee beans. I sampled both its Focus ($19.95, 12 ounces) and Restore ($34.95, 12 ounces) coffees; the former had 30 milligrams of CBD per bag, while the latter had 120 milligrams. While I felt neither especially focused nor restored after brewing some Sträva every day for a week, I liked the product—which just tasted like coffee, not like Weed Coffee—and my wife came to love it. “I sort of get it,” she said. “I don’t quite feel as jittery as I do with that crap we get from the grocery store.” Take that, grocery store!

When lunchtime rolled around I hydrated with Sprig, a CBD-infused soda that comes in a variety of flavors, such as citrus, and lemon tea ($50 for a 12-pack); it is basically Zen Snapple. I worked my way through a case of Sprig over several days, often washing down one or more of Dr. Norm’s tiny little Famous Amos–style CBD cookies ($24.95, 2.8 ounces). “Know Your Dose,” they say on the package, purportedly a quote from Dr. Norm himself, who looks like Old Buddy Holly. My dose turned out to be several delicious cookies at a time. (I love cookies.)

I also enjoyed Superlost Hemp Cold Brew ($60 for a 12-bottle case), which contains 20 milligrams of hemp extract per 8-ounce bottle. The hemp additive supposedly mitigates the crashing sensation that many people feel hours after drinking caffeine; by adding a downer to an upper, you in theory smooth out the ride. Superlost was good. You could really smell and taste the hemp. Granted, hemp sort of smells like old sweat socks, but the dank flavor actually paired well with the bitter coffee.

The big question was whether the CBD had had anything more than a placebo effect. I honestly couldn’t tell, which was sort of worrisome. When I drink a few beers, I can feel the impact on my body almost immediately. When I take a Claritin, my congestion clears up. When I suck a cough drop, my cough is whisked away in a wild cherry rush. But the effects of CBD, at least in the quantities and formats that I had tested, were elusive verging on nonexistent. Moreover, I wasn’t even sure what the CBD was supposed to be doing to my body. Calming me down? Helping me focus? Soothing my aching joints?

I decided to suppress my mounting doubts and proceed to the next stage of my plan: foisting more of this stuff on my wife.

3. The CBD Spa Night

If anyone deserves a relaxing spa vacation, it’s my wife, who works long hours and is always talking about how worn out she feels. So I decided to put one together using a bunch of CBD crap I’d received in the mail.

One night she came home to find I had dimmed the lights and lit a CBD candle. This product, from CBD Daily ($18.99, 5 ounces), contained unspecified essential oils and a full 60 milligrams of hemp extract but, incredibly, did not smell like a joint. (I’m not sure why I kept expecting every product I tried to smell like the parking lot at a Moe. concert.) “I hope you’re hungry,” I said, as I plated a robust portion of FishSki Provisions’ Hemp Extract Green Chile Mac and Cheese ($14, 6 ounces). The product is marketed to backpackers and outdoor adventurers—“pack it in, pack it out,” the bag pleads—but is also very useful for husbands trying to treat their wives to a self-consciously comical homemade spa night. As far as instant mac and cheese goes, it tasted pretty good, even if I did botch the cooking process by adding too much water. I would definitely bring it with me if I were to go camping, which I would never do, because I hate and fear nature.

I had acquired two disposable face masks from Bklyn CBD ($13.50), both of which contained 20 milligrams of CBD along with other beautifying ingredients, and we put them on after dinner. The masks were made from soft, white natural fibers, with cutouts for the eyes, nose, and mouth, and they made us look like horror movie villains, as if Michael Myers had taken a quick break from murdering for some me-time. We lay back on the bed for 15 pleasant minutes, sniffing the CBD candle as the mask’s nourishing juices flooded our respective pores. After the time was up, I rushed to see if I looked any fresher. My wife announced that my skin did indeed look bright, rosy, and wet. “So does yours,” I said. The spa night was going great!

There was still one more element to the evening: a soothing, CBD-enhanced massage, performed by me, a clumsy oaf. CBD Daily had provided bottles of its CBD massage oil ($24.99, 4 ounces) and CBD massage lotion ($57.99, 8 ounces), and because I hadn’t planned two spa nights I decided to use them both in succession, followed by the pièce de résistance: hot CBD massage oil that had pooled on the surface of the CBD candle. “Are you feeling relaxed?” I asked my wife as I kneaded the products into her back.

“Yes,” she said. “Sort of.” That was all I needed to hear to conclude the massage. Afterward we relaxed with two cups of “Highbiscus” CBD tea ($15, 0.45 ounces) from the Brothers Apothecary and I mulled the lessons of the evening. Though the experience had been fun and relaxing, I couldn’t say whether any of the CBD had done anything at all. Maybe it wasn’t the CBD that had made us relax so much as the experience of trying to do something special for someone you love? Maybe the real CBD was inside us all along?

4. The CBD Cocktail Party

The weekend was approaching, so I called my friends Dan and Josh and told them to come over on Friday and bring booze. When they arrived, I explained that my ulterior motive was to test-drive a set of CBD cocktail floaters from SoNo 1420 ($24.99, 1 ounce). Cocktail floaters are liquids that you layer on the surface of a cocktail in order to add an extra boozy punch. These particular cocktail floaters came in four flavors and contained 300 milligrams of CBD per vial. I mixed a bourbon-based drink that I thought would pair well with the lemon ginger cocktail floater, adding a splash of Sweet Reason strawberry + lavender CBD sparkling water ($39.99 per six-pack) as a makeshift mixer.

We clinked glasses. “To wellness!” I said.

“To pseudoscience!” Dan said, and we drank them down.

“This is the worst cocktail I’ve ever had,” Josh said, a sentiment that was rude but not necessarily untrue.

“You don’t like the floater?” I asked.

“No, you’re just terrible at mixing drinks,” Josh said. “I barely even taste the floater.” I remedied that by filling up the dropper and depositing its contents directly onto his tongue. His eyes went wide. “It tastes like liquid pot,” he said, and then we all wanted to try it. From there the night descended into a CBD haze, involving much tongue-spritzing, cookie-eating, and moisturizing with CBD hand lotion. By the end of this process our hands smelled fantastic and we were feeling profoundly mellow.

“If you kind of pretend that it works, it sort of works,” Dan mused, leaning back on the couch as he cracked a can of non-CBD beer. “Like, I’m relaxed right now, for sure. But is it because I’m full of CBD, or is it because I’m hanging out and drinking on a Friday night with my friends?”

I mulled the question later that night as I lay in bed, drunk, my face covered in Palmetto Harmony CBD lavender night cream ($49.99, 1.7 fluid ounces). I had spent a week test-driving CBD items that were only nominally CBD items. The CBD cookie was mostly a cookie; the CBD shampoo was mostly shampoo; the CBD candle was literally just a candle. If I wanted to truly live as CBD Man, I needed to start using CBD in its most intimidating commercial form: tinctures.

5. The CBD Extreme

CBD tinctures are little vials filled with concentrated CBD extract that has been infused into liquid. I had acquired three different brands of tinctures, all of which were slightly different yet fundamentally similar. The tincture from Bklyn CBD was called Finesse Time ($51, 1 ounce), and it contained 900 milligrams of CBD per vial. When placed under the tongue it felt and tasted like the unholy marriage of cannabis and olive oil. I treated it like medicine and dosed myself with a full eyedropper once every four hours. I felt vaguely more calm after doing so, though I am unsure whether this was because of the tincture or because I am calmed by routine.

Dr. Norm’s sent me three tinctures: a 300 milligram bottle for pets ($39.95, 1 ounce—I do not have a pet and was unwilling to acquire one for the purposes of this story); a 600 milligram bottle ($49.95, 1 ounce), marketed as a sleep aid, that also contained melatonin; and a 1,200 milligram bottle ($89.95, 1 ounce). I had the most success with the cinnamon-tasting sleep tincture, which did not really help me get to sleep but which kept me asleep until 10 a.m. the next morning. But, again, was it the CBD that knocked me out, or was it the melatonin? Or neither? All together now: Who knows.

I also tested Papa & Barkley’s hemp extract drops. Marketed to people seeking relief from pain and inflammation, they tasted strongly of hemp, and they also made my spit turn green, which would be a neat trick for St. Patrick’s Day, I guess. “Simply drop the desired dosage under your tongue, in a smoothie, tea, mocktail, or get creative with your favorite dish,” the accompanying literature urged, and so I took it up on the challenge and spent a couple of days dosing everything I ate and drank with hemp extract. I added the tincture to my breakfast cereal and to my soup. I spritzed it on top of my sweet potatoes. I dribbled it into my coffee and juice as well as my wife’s coffee and juice. I had gone mad with molecular CBD gastronomy.

One Tuesday my wife called me with a complaint. “I’ve felt lightheaded and weird all day at work,” she said. “I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m sick, because I took both Allegra and Zyrtec at the same time, or because I am completely covered in CBD.”

“Haha,” I said.

“I mean, you replaced all the shampoo with CBD shampoo,” she said. “The lotion is all CBD lotion now. You burn that CBD candle every night.”

“OK,” I said.

“You run around with that little eyedropper putting CBD into everything I eat and drink!”

Clearly, my experiment was quickly approaching its end. I had spent two weeks gorging on CBD in all imaginable formats. In the process, I had learned two things. First, that most of the CBD products on the market do not really contain all that much CBD. Second, that the CBD effect—at least for me—was functionally indistinguishable from a placebo effect.

If a placebo makes you feel better because you think it’s medicine, does it really matter if it isn’t medicine? Well, for one thing, these placebos didn’t make me feel better. For another thing, yes, of course it matters. These products are expensive, and consumers should know the truth about what they’re spending lots of money on. “Placebo effects are real, they’re genuine, they really do make you feel better. But that can’t be our medical policy as a nation,” said Haney. “We can’t let marketers say that this is the appropriate medicine to take, to feel better.”

I still had one product left to try before I concluded my stint as CBD Man, and it was the heaviest-duty item on my list. Chocodelic Trip, a CBD hot chocolate packet from the Brothers Apothecary ($15, 0.7 ounces), contains 10 different types of purportedly medicinal mushrooms and a whopping 215 milligrams of CBD per serving. It was my last, best hope for seeing if the CBD effect was actually real. I cooked up a cup and settled in for one last ride.

The cocoa tasted very bad: earthy and slightly numbing, as if I had licked the bottom of the cupboard under the bathroom sink. I decided to try to make it more palatable. I took a couple of squares of CBD chocolate and dropped them into the cup. I added a tiny pouch of the Brothers Apothecary’s CBD wildflower honey ($15 per three-pack) as a sweetener. I grabbed the three tinctures I had been using and sprinkled several drops of each atop the cocoa. The amount of CBD in the cocoa cup was now approaching clinical-study levels. I steeled myself and took another sip.

Oh, that’s much worse, I told myself. I took another big sip of the hot chocolate, and another, and another. I felt very strange. My fingers tingled. My head lightly pulsed. My chest felt tight. My digestive system groaned. Was I getting high, or just sick to my stomach?

This Chocodelic Trip led me directly to the bathroom, where I stayed for many minutes. Afterward, I poured myself a jar of water and ate a plain hot dog bun to try to kill the taste. At last, I had finally felt something as a direct result of using a CBD product. Unfortunately, it wasn’t relaxation.