I was in a gas station about midway between Las Vegas and home, legs somehow sore from hours spent sitting in a car. That’s when I saw a line of CBD-infused iced teas at eye level in the beverage cooler.
Is this legal? I thought, staring at a rainbow array of teas in glass bottles. Somehow, CBD was floating in those brightly colored liquids for me to pick up and purchase (for $8 a bottle!) and walk out the store and sip under the hot afternoon sunshine.
This happened in 2019. Those CBD-infused teas weren’t legal, technically. And they still aren’t permitted, technically, because CBD and hemp products, including oils, lotions, gummies, and, yes, iced tea, sit in a weird, murky gray area that is still evolving, still being researched, and still in the process of being regulated.
Let’s dig into what this means for you, how to understand what is and isn’t legal, and how to shop smarter for CBD and hemp products.
What is CBD Oil?
First, some plant science. CBD is short for “cannabidiol.” It’s a molecule found in the Cannabis sativa plant. The cannabis plant is full of compounds called cannabinoids, including THC (which gets you high), terpenes (which give the plant its aroma and flavor), and CBD. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t get you high.
Even if you’re new to CBD, you might have heard that it’s full of benefits — like helping people reduce pain and inflammation, relax, and fall asleep. These benefits are backed by emerging science, and in 2019, the National Institutes of Health awarded approximately $3 million to research the pain-relieving properties of cannabis 1.
CBD works by latching onto specific receptors in your body. This happens via the endocannabinoid system, which is a natural system already built into your body, just like your cardiovascular system or your nervous system. Once CBD latches onto those receptors, it triggers chemical reactions that support your body in different ways — like blocking the enzymes that contribute to pain and inflammation or supporting feel-good neurotransmitters to improve your mood 2 3.
CBD oil is concentrated CBD mixed with a carrier oil. Think of a vitamin pill: The capsule contains a dose of the vitamin, plus other ingredients to give the capsule shape and more efficiently deliver the right stuff to your body. Similarly, manufacturers can extract the CBD molecule and mix it with a carrier oil like MCT or coconut oil. Other times, CBD extract is combined with other ingredients to make creams, vape oil, or edibles.
So, in summary:
- CBD is a molecule that comes from the cannabis plant.
- CBD has tons of benefits, like promoting better sleep and pain relief.
- CBD can be extracted and combined with a carrier oil to create CBD oil.
What is Hemp Oil?
Hemp oil, aka hemp seed oil, comes from hemp seeds. It’s primarily used in body care products, like soap and lotions, and you’ll find it in some CBD products as a carrier oil. But hemp oil does not have the same beneficial properties as CBD, and it is not the same as CBD oil. It’s basically coconut oil: It’s excellent for skin, but it’s not going to help you sleep or reduce pain.
However, you’ll find products that call their CBD “hemp-derived,” “full-spectrum hemp,” or made from “all-natural hemp.” Where does hemp come in?
Let’s go back to cannabis. Hemp and cannabis (aka marijuana) are two strains of the same plant species: Cannabis sativa. The easiest way to think about this difference is to think about green and red apples. Yeah, they both look like apples. But they taste and smell different because they’re two unique varieties.
Here’s the thing: Hemp and cannabis both contain THC and CBD. The difference is the amount of THC and CBD in each plant:
- Cannabis contains higher levels of THC. That’s why marijuana can get you high.
- Hemp contains only trace amounts of THC and higher levels of CBD. Hemp products won’t get you high.
So, CBD can come from the cannabis plant or the hemp plant. On a molecular level, CBD is the same, whether it comes from cannabis or hemp.
If you want more THC with your CBD, you want cannabis-derived CBD. Why would you want THC? THC has therapeutic properties when it’s combined with CBD because it acts on different receptors in your endocannabinoid system. And depending on the ratio of THC to CBD, you won’t necessarily get stoned (unless you want to).
The thing is, hemp is legal on the federal level. Cannabis isn’t. This means that hemp-derived CBD is permitted under certain conditions, but cannabis-derived CBD isn’t. And that’s where things get murky.
The Confusing World of Federally Legal CBD
In 2018, the Agriculture Improvement Act (“Farm Bill”) removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act 4. This legalized hemp production and removed legal restrictions on hemp-derived extracts, including CBD.
Under the Farm Bill, legal hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% THC. Cannabis containing more than 0.3% THC is considered marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law. So, if the CBD is hemp-derived, it has less than 0.3% THC in it, then it’s fine … right? Not necessarily.
States are still in the process of changing their laws to match federal rules. Also, even though hemp is federally legal, state laws don’t have to align. You’d be hard-pressed to find hemp products for sale in South Dakota or Idaho. 5 6. This disparity leaves a big gray area in the regulatory world. Part of the difficulty is that Mother Nature doesn’t care about the Farm Bill’s 0.3% guidelines. Hemp is still cannabis, and therefore still contains scant amounts of THC. If a hemp plant is pollinated, it can become marijuana, and therefore contain illegal levels of THC 7.
And once the plants are sent to be processed for extraction, an illegal dose of THC can still inadvertently end up in the bottle 8. That’s why some producers include a lab report with their products to verify that you’re getting legitimate levels of CBD.
Also, CBD is still subject to the FDA’s regulation when it’s sold with a claim of therapeutic benefit. That means CBD products that claim to treat cancer, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s can expect a warning letter from the FDA, which is what happened to Curaleaf Inc. in 2019 9.
The other problem is that, according to the FDA, adding CBD oil to food is forbidden. And yet, my sighting of CBD-infused iced tea happened in California, which still hasn’t officially legalized CBD in food products 10.
Oh, and if you live in a recreational state, you can totally buy cannabis-derived CBD from a dispensary. But on a federal level, it’s still illegal. Fun!
Related article: How to Enjoy Cannabis Without Getting High
How to Know What You’re Buying
So, what about the CBD products you might have seen on store shelves? Because there’s such a massive flood of CBD products on the market right now, you have to be careful about reading ingredient labels and buying products from reputable companies. That’s because CBD oil and hemp oil aren’t the same things, even if they both come from the hemp plant.
Because we’re still in the early days of regulation, some companies will label their products to make you think you’re getting CBD — when really, it’s just hemp seed oil. Here’s how to buy smarter:
- Look at the ingredients. If you want CBD, you want to see words like “cannabidiol,” “full-spectrum hemp,” or “hemp extract oil.”
- When possible, find out how the CBD extracts were made and see if they’re validated by a third-party lab.
- If you’re buying from a budtender in a dispensary, they should be able to point you in the right direction.
- If you’re buying online, take the time to read up on the company and understand their processing methods.
Remember, we’re still in the early days of regulation, and what you see isn’t necessarily what you get when you buy hemp-derived CBD products.
I didn’t end up buying that bottle of CBD-infused tea. The label looked promising, and the hibiscus flavor sounded delicious. Still, my phone was dead, and I couldn’t look up anything about the company or where their CBD came from — and I wasn’t willing to roll the dice for $8 a bottle. I put the bottle back on the shelf and closed the cooler door, then took a step back and admired the teas. Not too long ago, the idea of buying CBD iced tea in a gas station convenience store would have been bonkers. It’s a reality now. That’s a big step in the right direction.
Related Article: CBD and Terpene Pairings for Relaxation and Stress Relief