CBC Investigates

Cannabidiol oil won't get you buzzed but it could get you busted

Cannabidiol oil, or CBD, is generating a lot of buzz in the world of alternative medicine, and some purveyors say it's completely legal in Canada. But federal authorities say it is indeed illegal without a medical marijuana prescription. And its purported health benefits are still in question.

CBD oil is a controlled substance — and the 'jury is still out' on its health benefits

CBD oil is considered a Schedule 2 drug in Canada and should only be sold to those with a prescription, according to Health Canada. But it is widely available online and at head shops. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Cannabidiol oil, or CBD, is generating a lot of buzz in the world of alternative medicine and many Canadians are buying in.

The oil, which is extracted from marijuana plants, doesn't have the same mind-altering effects as smoking pot. People rub it on their achy joints or put it under their tongue to help them sleep. Some purveyors say it's completely legal in Canada and can be used for a long list of ailments, including epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

But federal authorities say CBD oil, which is widely available at head shops and online, is indeed illegal without a medical marijuana prescription. And its purported health benefits are also still in question.

Cannabis products not yet legal

Canadian affiliates of HempWorx, a multi-level marketing company based in Las Vegas, have been pushing CBD oil products through websites that say the product is allowed in Canada. They also list how much people should take for a long list of diseases.

HempWorx did not respond to multiple interview requests. But in April, one of its Winnipeg-based affiliates told CBC News that its sale is "100 per cent legal."

Under current Canadian law, the possession or sale of cannabidiol oil is illegal the same way other cannabis products are illegal. The same goes for importing or exporting the substance. The fact that it doesn't get you high doesn't matter.

"Anyone who has evidence that this product is being sold in Canada should provide this information to law enforcement, and should be aware that this product would be illegal to purchase," a spokesperson for Health Canada said in an email.

"The unauthorized movement of cannabis across Canada's borders remains a serious criminal offence, subject to enforcement up to and including criminal investigation and prosecution," said the Canadian Border Services Agency in an email.

Jordan Sinclair, spokesperson for Canopy Growth Corporation, says people should go to the Health Canada website to find producers that are licensed and legal. (CBC News)

Telling customers CBD oil is legal is a problem for the burgeoning marijuana industry, according to Canopy Growth Corp., which calls itself the world's biggest licensed pot and oil producer.

"You are putting [consumers] at risk, including legal risk because they are in possession of an illegal drug," said Jordan Sinclair, a company spokesperson.

Until marijuana is legalized in Canada, the only people who can legally buy Canopy's products or any other cannabis or cannabidiol oil from a licensed producer are patients with prescriptions.

Canopy Growth is concerned that companies that make health claims could erode the credibility of the pot industry as a whole.

"Many of the health claims that are being made are outside of the rules that we are playing by, so there are some general red flags that go up around that," said Sinclair, whose company conducts continuing medical education with physicians about the state of cannabis science.  

"Let's allow doctors to evaluate patients and make prescription decisions based on the evidence that's out there. But that's very, very far cry away from somebody going on the Internet saying that they're going to cure your MS or they're going to cure cancer," he said.

"That's not medical advice, that's snake oil salesmanship."

Health benefits in question

CBD's health benefits are hazy. But that has not stopped HempWorx and other unlicenced companies from promoting the "miraculous health benefits" of the oil and making claims about its possible uses.

Under the heading "serving suggestions" on its website, HempWorx outlines the daily amounts to take for diseases such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and glaucoma. 

The site also has a section titled "how CBD oil works in the human body" that lists studies under the headings "relieves anxiety," "reduces the risk of artery blockages" and "relieves pain."

Robert Laprairie is studying cells in a Petri dish at a lab at the University of Saskatchewan to determine how CBD works in the human body. While there are signs that it is useful for the treatment of some conditions, he stressed the findings are preliminary. (Trevor Botherel/CBC News)

​Preliminary studies have been published about the oil's potential health effects — but there isn't enough evidence to make sweeping health claims, said Robert Laprairie, an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan's college of pharmacy and nutrition.

"The short answer is that we don't exactly know how cannabadoil works in the body," he said.

"I think we really just need more research and more studies in order to demonstrate whether cannabidiol is or isn't effective as a treatment for different conditions."

Laprairie is currently studying how CBD works on humans. He says there is good preliminary evidence to suggest that cannabidiol is useful for the treatment of pediatric epilepsy and Crohn's disease — but he stresses the word preliminary.

"As a scientist I would say that the jury is still out on what we have good evidence-based medicine for," he said.

HempWorx products not approved in Canada

Health Canada is more blunt about making health claims for CBD or any other cannabis products.

"Health Canada is especially concerned about advertisements of any kind which are false, misleading or deceptive, and those which advertise cannabis in relation to particular therapeutic claims," the regulator stated in an information bulletin.

As far as HempWorx's status in Canada, the federal regulator says it not allowed.

"Health Canada has not authorized any of the HempWorx products mentioned on the website provided," said a spokesperson in an email to CBC News.

HempWorx's website contains the following disclaimer:

"These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease ... We do not make any health claims about our products at HempWorx LLC. Before taking our products, it's wise to check with your physician or medical doctor."  

HempWorx owner Josh Zwagil warned affiliates against making medical claims and to avoid words like cures, prevents, diagnose and treats in an online webinar for affiliates from last summer.

He said U.S. regulators are watching closely and told affiliates to "not ruin this for everybody." 

"What you can say to build excitement, and say it in the same way, is 'research suggests', 'studies show,' 'different users of these products are claiming,'" he said at the time.

Legalization coming — but with caveats

Dried cannabis and CBD oil from licenced producers will become legal once the federal Cannabis Act passes, but the current draft of the law prohibits the promotion in a manner that is misleading or deceptive or that is likely to create an erroneous impression about health effects.

If the science behind the health benefits of CBD oil bears out, the government will need to decide how that will change the way it is marketed.

Laprairie said it will all take time.

He would like Health Canada regulate CBD the same way it regulates natural health products or prescription drugs.

"Then we would have a mechanism for prescribing rights for physicians and we would have mechanisms to hold and carry and track use through pharmacies."

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