The Miracle Molecule? Putting CBD Products to the Test

It’s one of the hottest trends around, with many claiming it offers medical benefits without getting you high. CBD oil, the extract from hemp plants, has been called the miracle molecule.

These days it can be found in everything from hot sauce to hand creams and coffee to candy.

“The sky is the limit right now," said Barbara Biddle, who opened two of Northern Virginia’s first CBD stores called District Hemp. "I definitely see this industry exploding. You know every single day we're seeing new products, new delivery methods."

It’s expected to become a billion-dollar industry since the federal government made it easier to buy and sell. The recent Farm Bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act because it has such low levels of THC, the compound that gives other varieties of cannabis, like marijuana, its mood-changing properties. But there are currently no dosage guidelines or labeling standards, and the Food and Drug Administration prohibits CBD sellers from making any medical claims.

District Hemp Offers Dozens of CBD Products

Users like Tiffany Burtt, told the News4 I-Team, CBD helps ease anxiety, headaches and even inflammation.

"It's so benign and so good for you," she said.

She showed us all the products she uses, costing about $250, and said they’re totally worth the money.

"A mild dose of CBD, that's pretty powerful on pain for me," she said. "My 101 year old grandmother, she uses it for her arthritis.”

Burtt said each product helps her in different ways but admits she has tried some that don't do anything. She thinks that could be because, despite the labeling, there's little or no CBD in them. When asked how yo know the difference, she said, “You don’t. It’s trial and error.”

What’s in That CBD Bottle?

So, News4, working with our affiliates in Miami and New York, decided to put dozens of popular products from seven different companies to the test. Whether we ordered the products online, or bought in person at stores, lab tests showed more than half of them had far less CBD than claimed on the package. One product had no CBD at all.

“Well, I think it's incredibly frustrating. It's irritating,” Burtt said when told the test results.

But the results weren't surprising to Phillip Stripling, co-owner of Steep Hill Labs in Maryland, which specializes in hemp and cannabis product testing.

"It can be a really complex process to make these products. So sometimes there can be a mistake in the production process," Stripling said.

Some manufacturers treat testing as a form of research to make sure a product contains what they say it does, he said. If not, they can fix it before it hits the shelves. But all of that is voluntary.

There currently are no requirements for testing CBD products on the consumer side, Stripling said. That’s why he also worries about what else could be in some of these products that shouldn’t be.

“We also test for a range of safety," he said. "We test for pesticides, microbiological contamination, heavy metal contamination like mercury, arsenic, lead.”

All of those things can sneak into CBD products from the soil used to grow the plants.

Five of the samples sent to a different lab tested positive for things like pesticides, fungus, ethanol and lead.

More Regulation Needed?

“The federal government actually has a role here to play,” said Josh Sanderlin, a D.C. attorney who consults for the budding cannabis and CBD industry. "Cannabis with THC is more regulated and tested than CBD oil is by far. It's terrifying. I mean, you can go into coffee shops and buy CBD infused in your coffee."

Some cities are cracking down. Earlier this month, the New York City Health Department started fining restaurants that sell food and drinks infused with CBD. The FDA currently prohibits its use as a food additive but has signaled a potential softening of that stance, if regulations are enacted.

"Unless they're actually tested by independent laboratory, you can't really trust the seller of a product to tell you exactly what's in the product," Sanderlin said.

“I do wish that there was a little bit more oversight," Biddle said.

She’s not taking any chances in her Virginia store, only stocking products that have been lab-tested to prove what’s in them. She even keeps a binder with the third-party lab results to show the amount of CBD in everything she sells.

"Who wants to feel gypped when they buy a product, especially something that they're trying to use for health reasons?" she said.

Plus, she said she offers a refund for products that don't work. So it's in her best interest to make sure customers get what they pay for and nothing harmful. Her advice to any new CBD customer, “Check the labs, do your research. Check customer reviews. That's probably your best bet honestly."

CBD advocates said there is a flip side to more regulation. It could make the products harder for customers to get and push up prices. In December, the FDA announced it will schedule a public meeting to discuss all of these issues surrounding CBD. The meeting hasn't been scheduled yet.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.