CBD belongs in store next to vitamins, echinacea, says industry group

The natural health industry is pressuring Health Canada to classify CBD, the non-hallucinogenic component of cannabis, as a natural health product. Medical users are now turning to recreational pot distributors with unclear CBD labelling to get it.

Not enough research on CBD, it's 'skirting the system' worries medical marijuana advocate

Multiple sclerosis and medical marijuana patient David Sloan exhales smoke from medical cannabis concentrate given to him with help from his caregiver. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

The natural health industry is putting pressure on Health Canada to classify CBD, the non-hallucinogenic component of cannabis, as a natural health product.

That would put CBD in the same category as echinacea, vitamin D and other health supplements. 

"An increasing number of Canadians are looking for cannabis products for their health, not to get high," said Helen Long, president of the Canadian Health Food Association. "It doesn't have THC in it, it doesn't have that high component." 

Now that recreational marijuana is legal, her group says people are turning to sanctioned outlets such as the Ontario Cannabis Store for therapeutic CBD products.

"You removed the need for a doctor, all of a sudden. And anyone who was either having trouble finding a doctor that supported it, or was shy about it — essentially it's out there now, direct access," said Adam Gibson, the group's director of policy.

But since official sellers such as the OCS are designed for recreational pot users, its products don't include the CBD labelling information medical marijuana patients need, Long told CBC.
Natural health products have labelling that spells out what the supplement can be used to treat, how much of the active ingredient each tablet contains, as well as a list of any non-medicinal ingredients. (CBC)

"There's no information on the packages about usage or dosage or warning statements — anything like that."

The result, Long and Gibson say, is people experimenting with different products and different dosages that could lead to harmful interactions if taken without a doctor's supervision. 

'Dangerous precedent'

Peter Thurley, a medical marijuana advocate who sits on the board of directors for Canadians for Fair Access to Medical Marijuana, is concerned about drawing too close a comparison between CBD and natural health products. 

"Things that are vitamins, we've got a pretty good idea. We've research those to death, if you will," said Thurley. "We're not in that same space at all with CBD and so I would certainly hesitate in creating a space in the market for CBD products without any kind of education or medical supervision. I think that's a dangerous precedent to set."

Health Canada appears to agree with Thurley. When recreational use of cannabis was legalized, Health Canada added phytocannabinoids, including CBD, to its prescription drug list. 

In a statement to CBC, the federal department said this was done to "maintain the requirement for oversight by a health care practitioner for therapeutic products and to help ensure that these products are used appropriately, just like any other prescription medication."

It says this will ensure any health claims made by cannabis-containing products are "properly regulated."  Health Canada went on to say there just is not enough clinical evidence to develop "acceptable threshold dosages for non-prescription use."

But if CBD was regulated as a natural health product, says Gibson, it would be subjected to strict testing and guidelines — something he knows intimately, having worked in the health product food branch at Health Canada for 14 years. 

Limited clinical evidence

He says the regulation of Canada's natural health products is robust, among the best in the world.

"You have to provide evidence of safety, efficacy — it has to do what it says it does — and quality before it's approved," explained Gibson. 

"Then after it's approved you also have monitoring for adverse drug reactions, there's requirements to report that, and that gets put into a common system so you can monitor for drug-drug interactions, and develop that really robust system around health products."

"We have something that's kind of skirting the whole system right now."

For its part, Health Canada said the decision over how a drug is classified as prescription or not is evaluated according to risk. 

"Right now, the level of evidence around the safety and effectiveness of specific doses of the active ingredients in cannabis are limited," it said.

"This type of information would be essential to establishing dosage limits or other thresholds to differentiate between prescription and non-prescription products," said Health Canada.

"We anticipate that this type of information will become available over time, as scientific evidence grows."


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.


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