By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist
The boom is built on the assumption that CBD, the cannabis cannabinoid known as cannabidiol, is not psychoactive. The FDA isn’t so sure and the DEA demurs, putting the CBD-based seizure drug Epidiolex into Schedule V last year.
So is CBD psychoactive? The answer hinges on the definition of the term psychoactive.
According to the World Health Organization: “Psychoactive substances are substances that, when taken in or administered into one’s system, affect mental processes, e.g. cognition or affect.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains psychoactive drugs this way: “Drugs in this category act on the central nervous system and alter its normal, everyday activity, causing changes in mood, awareness, and behavior.”
The term “psychotropic” is used with a similar meaning. MedicineNet states that a psychotropic drug is “any drug capable of affecting the mind, emotions, and behavior.”
But does CBD affect mental states, alter everyday activity, or change mood, awareness, or behavior?
The FDA last year approved Epidiolex — the first CBD-based medication — for the treatment of two rare and severe forms of childhood epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. CBD potentially has many other uses, including neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, and neuropsychiatric illness such as autism, ADHD, and PTSD. It could also be beneficial for anorexia, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Purveyors of commercial CBD products go further, claiming that CBD may help with insomnia, social anxiety, and panic attacks. Although most product labels avoid specific claims of treatment efficacy to avoid FDA scrutiny, clear statements of possible benefits are easy to find online.
The FDA recently sent a warning letter to a New Jersey company for claiming that CBD can treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder.
In order for CBD to do even half of this, it would have to have an effect on mental states, mood and awareness. In other words, CBD could not do what its proponents claim without being psychoactive, at least in the narrow, technical sense of the term.
But details matter here. First, psychoactive does not mean intoxicating, hallucinogenic or dissociative. And many prescription drugs have benefits precisely because they are psychoactive. Even caffeine is arguably psychoactive, though only very weakly.
Second, dose matters. The pharmaceutical Epidiolex is administered in doses that have 10 to 100 times more CBD than a typical over-the-counter or commercial CBD product. So CBD may be psychoactive in therapeutic doses, but not in “commercial” doses. Of course, this assumes the product actually contains CBD, which in practice is not necessarily the case.
Third, route of administration matters. CBD is only weakly bioavailable and unstable in light or temperature extremes. A clear bottle of CBD water or CBD bath oil could easily lose much of the CBD it may contain, and the remaining CBD may not even be absorbed. And if the CBD is applied to non-vascularized tissue, as is the case with CBD mascara, then it cannot be psychoactive because of a lack of blood vessels for transport to the brain.
Thus, whether or not CBD is psychoactive depends on the amount and method that CBD is introduced to the human body. Since most of the claims from proponents remain unverified and in many cases untested even in animals, it could be premature to state that CBD is psychoactive in a specific way.
On the other hand, the existing work on CBD argues for calling CBD psychoactive. Recent findings by Yasmin Hurd showed that CBD, specifically Epidiolex, reduces cravings in people addicted to heroin. Ongoing research is demonstrating possible benefits of CBD for seizure disorders in humans and even in dogs.
Project CBD noted in 2016 that “as our scientific understanding and therapeutic experience deepens, the description of CBD as non-psychoactive may fall by the wayside.”
For now, it would be reasonable to say that CBD is probably “weakly psychoactive” at commercial doses but more “strongly psychoactive” at therapeutic doses. As more studies are completed on what CBD actually does, the pharmacological description of CBD can be updated accordingly.
Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.