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Everything You Need to Know About U.S. Law and CBD

CBD LegalityAlthough marijuana has been used by humans for more than 4,500 years, in many ways it's a brand new industry as governments the world over grapple with rapidly changing public sentiment and legality. A particularly interesting battleground is already shaping up in the U.S., where states representing all aspects of the political spectrum have started to deconstruct federal laws restricting the usage of marijuana and related products. With the rise of derivatives like CBD, new statewide ballot-box initiatives, and a flurry of recent scientific studies, the future of marijuana in the United States is as promising as it is complicated. Read on for an overview of where we are with marijuana and CBD as well as where the U.S. is going with its cannabis laws.

What is CBD and what are the potential benefits?

Famous organic chemist Roger Adams couldn't have known quite what he was discovering when he became the first to isolate cannabidiol (CBD) from the rest of the Cannabis Sativa plant in 1940. It would take decades of research to get a foundational understanding of what CBD and the other cannabinoids are capable of, but it soon became clear that CBD had enormous potential from a medical standpoint. Representing roughly 40% of the extract from the typical marijuana plant, CBD brings much of the medical upside of cannabis without the THC, the psychoactive agent closely associated with the desired effects of recreational marijuana usage.

But not all CBD is the same either, opening the doors to a wide range of applications (and misunderstandings). CBD oil can either be extracted from the marijuana plant or can derive from the hemp plant, which is a cousin of the marijuana plant and also a member of the Cannabis Sativa family. This can make an enormous difference in effect and legality, in addition to complicating the terminology at the expense of the novice. For those looking to stay completely away from THC, isolate oils are 100% pure CBD and have been separated from all the other cannabinoids in the marijuana plant. Because CBD has an array of established medical benefits and extremely limited side effects, pure CBD is also an ideal choice for treating children, another critical component of the ongoing battle over CBD's legality (more on this below).

A similar dynamic is at play for hemp oil, which carries such low amounts of THC that it was effectively legalized on the federal level with the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp oil, extracted from the stalk of the hemp plant, typically is high in CBD, leading to some overlap with calling it CBD oil – and vice versa. A full-spectrum hemp oil that has CBD and trace amounts of THC is used for a range of functions, including treating stress and anxiety. As of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is no longer classified as a Schedule 1 drug and it is legal to cultivate and sell it with a license, essentially legalizing hemp-based CBD oil as long as the THC doesn't surpass 0.3%.

Meanwhile, hemp seed oil is something almost entirely different, representing more of a distant cousin to CBD oil than a close relative. Hemp seed oil, derived from cold-pressing hemp seeds instead of extracting from the stalk, is used for everything from making paper and oil-based paints to cooking and moisturizing skin. It also has no CBD, generally considered the most important cannabinoid for medical treatment.

For a more potent experience or application, full spectrum CBD oil still has plenty of CBD, although it also has a variety of other cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant – including a tiny portion of THC. In addition to the benefits of pure CBD, full spectrum CBD is often used to increase appetite and is generally considered a more robust treatment option. But those concerned about THC have little to worry about; typically having only 0.3% THC or less, a full spectrum CBD oil also contains only a minuscule amount of the THC found in recreational marijuana or cannabis oil, which can contain 15-20% THC or more.

But why all the fuss about CBD? The answer mostly lies in the dramatically expanding field of scientific research. Even just scraping the surface, the medical potential of CBD has proven to be nothing shy of profound. In a landmark overview of recent studies in 2018, Surgical Neurological International found that CBD was a successful adjunct (secondary) treatment option for rare epileptic disorders like Davet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes. Similar success, according to the SNI study, was demonstrated in treating Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Confirming findings from other breakthrough studies, CBD was even shown to be a neuroprotectant, which in this case means it can help reduce short-term brain damage and treat a variety of neurological diseases. Like other research, the SNI study also boasted of CBD's relatively benign side effects, making it an ideal addition to a primary treatment option.

The potential medical benefits don't end there either. While renowned medical journal Cancer Medicine connected CBD with enhancing the immune systems of cancer patients, other studies have found impressive results for using CBD to treat major psychological trauma, general anxiety, and a variety of sleep disorders. CBD oil is also regularly used to relieve pain, reduce nausea, and a spread of other commonplace ailments.

In short, credible scientific findings have caught up with the speculation that previously drove the industry, changing the game both for medical application and the legal status of CBD.

Is CBD legal in the United States?

The most important thing to know about the legal status of CBD in the U.S. is that it is in a state of constant fluctuation, though the clear trend is towards full legalization. While the recent Farm Bill was a major boon to CBD and hemp advocates, the key battlegrounds remain at the state ballot box as with state lawmakers. In the summer of 2018, Harvard Health Publishing detailed how all 50 states allow for at least some form of support for CBD, with even reluctant states (e.g. Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi) expanding legal support on various fronts. States that are otherwise not close to fully legalizing marijuana have seen the light on CBD, mostly due to the overwhelming evidence of medical benefits that have flooded into the public sphere in recent years.

To see how this shift has taken shape, we can look at what transpired in Alabama in 2014. Known for having some of the strictest marijuana laws in the country, Alabama made national news by passing Carly's Law, which loosened regulations so the University of Alabama could study the effects treating epilepsy with CBD. Not only did the law allow for a groundbreaking new study, but the study itself more than justified the change in legal status of CBD. The study ultimately found about a two-thirds drop in seizures for both adults and children and also demonstrated milder convulsions for patients being treated by CBD. Since Carly's Law was passed, pure CBD oil that doesn't contain THC has also been approved for medicinal purposes.

With such overwhelming success in a state previously hostile to the study of CBD, the floodgates were officially opened for other states to push forward with laws and research of their own. Despite some gray area, other strict anti-marijuana states like Idaho have largely fallen in line. Even though Idaho remains one of only a few that still don't allow for medicinal marijuana, even the attorney general acknowledged that CBD with no THC is completely legal. Other states that now allow for pure CBD oil – despite strict marijuana laws – include Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Wyoming. In Kansas during the 2018 midterm elections, voters passed a measure that legally separated CBD oil entirely from marijuana.

The bipartisan support for hemp in the farm bill is not much of a surprise either. Last June, after a unanimous recommendation from the advisory committee, the FDA approved the epilepsy drug Epidiolex, the first CBD-based medication given full legal status in the U.S. Though some states continue to fight the national trend (e.g. South Dakota), any state clinging to an anti-CBD stance has an uphill battle ahead due to the key developments of the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill not only elevated the federal legal status of hemp, but it also made it legal for licensed sellers to transfer products across state lines. While state legislators in states like South Dakota and Nebraska can dig in, outspoken local CBD advocates promise an uncomfortable position at best, with laws from other surrounding states working against their efforts.

State and federal marijuana regulation.

On the surface, federal law in the U.S. points to a rigidly anti-marijuana position, although the combination of changing public perception and new state laws have completely undercut federal guidelines. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act was the original legal challenge to marijuana on a federal level, eventually pushed further by the 1970 Controlled Substance Act that labeled marijuana a Schedule 1 drug – along with heroin, LSD, and methamphetamine. Cocaine was labeled a Schedule 2 narcotic.

At the foundation of the classification system, a Schedule 1 drug is deemed to have no medical value, which is why it isn't surprising that this is the basic framework for state challenges to federal law. After all, the first known medical usage for cannabis happened all the way back somewhere around 2,700 B.C., when China's Emperor Shen Neng used it for a variety of treatments. By the 15th century, historian Ibn al-Badri famously wrote about the successful marijuana treatment of a boy suffering from epilepsy, the very same type of breakthrough that is still leading the legalization process of cannabis derivatives today.

Looking to move from historical anecdotes to provable science, 20th-century researchers like Roger Adams, Walter S. Loewe, and Raphael Mechoulam would all make important breakthroughs that would revolutionize how we look at the Cannabis Sativa plant. Adams would successfully extract CBD only a few years after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Working specifically with CBD, such researchers were able to demonstrate early signs of clear medical benefits, paving the way for research exemptions even while the 1970 Controlled Substance Act outlawed cannabis as a whole.

As more recent researchers have dramatically expanded upon the known medical benefits of CBD and marijuana, some states were quicker to enact their own laws than others. After decriminalizing marijuana back in the 1970s, in 1996 California became the first state to allow medical marijuana, which is arguably the turning point of cannabis in the U.S. Other states – like Maine – that also decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s soon followed with medical marijuana laws of their own. The early-adoption states for medical marijuana soon became the unsurprising leaders for recreational marijuana as well, with Colorado, Washington, California, and Nevada all passing medical and recreational laws early in the timeline. In 2018, Vermont would become the first state to legalize recreational marijuana through legislation instead of a ballot initiative.

On the other end of the spectrum, many states that have been hesitant to rewrite marijuana laws and precedent are still making progressive changes. 2018 voters in Oklahoma and Missouri passed initiatives for medical usage and another strict state, Utah, expanded the availability of medical marijuana after first allowing epilepsy treatment in 2014. Even South Dakota, arguably the most rigid state in the country when it comes to marijuana, has allowed research exemptions for THC-free CBD.

The states that aren't the trailblazers when it comes to marijuana law also step into a nice situation in terms of legal framework. When Nevada became the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana, lawmakers approved a minimum age of 21, which has quickly become the norm around the U.S. as the cannabis debate evolves. With states raising the smoking age to be in line with alcohol restrictions, it's unlikely the age minimum will budge from 21 for marijuana consumption anytime in the near future.

As states have rapidly shifted the legal status of marijuana, the federal government hasn't been entirely absent from the discussion. Under President Obama, marijuana enforcement was reprioritized to reflect the new state laws flooding the books, essentially ceding the ground to states looking to carve their own paths on marijuana. Although President Trump's original attorney general, Jeff Sessions, looked to counter the Obama-era policy, the Department of Justice soon back-peddled, instead vaguely stating that the department could take legal action in the future against states that legalize cannabis. Since Sessions made his push to enforce federal marijuana laws, Trump showed supportfor a bipartisan Senate marijuana bill that would leave it up to the states and Sessions resigned as attorney general.

Whether or not the new bill passes in the Senate or not this year, it seems very unlikely the federal government will attempt to reverse the trend of support for marijuana across the country.

Do marijuana laws affect hemp?

To understand the differences between hemp and marijuana laws, knowing the basic difference between the two plants is a step in the right direction. While both marijuana and hemp are in the Cannabis Sativa family, marijuana is mostly known for potentially having high amounts of THC while it's extremely limited in hemp, marking the essential distinction from a legal standpoint. Because of this key difference, the marijuana plant was formerly considered completely off limits while hemp has enjoyed an extra layer of legal cover.

But that dynamic has progressed on both fronts in recent years. As marijuana laws have significantly changed in states around the country, hemp now has widespread legislative support even in a historically divided federal government. Though few federal lawmakers – so far – are pressing for new marijuana laws, hemp was included in the farm bills in both 2014 and 2018. While the 2014 bill allowed for an expansion of pilot programs for studying hemp, the 2018 version went so far as to allow for both regulated cultivation and using it for commercial purposes across state lines. Essentially, federal lawmakers believed the 2014 bill was successful and that it was time for hemp to take the next step forward.

State lawmakers have also been grappling with how to handle hemp, with at least 38 different states looking at hemp laws in 2018 alone. The main problems: defining what hemp actually is and differentiating it from marijuana. Although each state is tackling the issue with different parameters, the general consensus is that hemp-based products – including CBD oil – with virtually no THC should be allowed under state guidelines. While stricter states like Kansas insist on a THC level of 0.0%, other relatively strict states like Indiana allow for CBD oil that has up to 0.3% THC.

The overarching trends, however, couldn't be better defined: both marijuana and hemp have increasing support for legalization in the U.S. As marijuana progresses even in states with strict laws and customs, hemp has such federal backing that the few remaining states opposed to it might now be in untenable positions. With breakthroughs in CBD and marijuana treatments continuing to redefine our understanding of the Cannabis Sativa plant, marijuana and hemp both appear to be emerging from the shadows in unison.