By Shamard Charles, M.D. – Dr. Shamard Charles is a physician-journalist for NBC News and Today, reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.
CVS Pharmacy announced Wednesday that it will begin selling hemp-derived CBD products in eight states. The national drug store chain will be marketing the topical cannabidiol products, such as creams, sprays and roll-ons, as “an alternative source of relief,” CVS said in a statement to NBC News. CVS will also be partnering with a company to test and verify the quality of the CBD topicals sold in its drug stores.
“We are carrying hemp-derived CBD products in select states to help meet consumer demand for alternative care options,” said CVS Health Spokesperson, Mike DeAngelis.
The items will be sold in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Tennessee.
CBD, or cannabidiol, comes from the hemp plant, a close relative to another member of the cannabis family, marijuana. Both plants contain abundant types of cannabinoids, but marijuana is high in the psychoactive chemical THC, while hemp is rich in CBD, the non-psychoactive component of cannabis that has generated quite a buzz for its potential medicinal benefits.
CBD has been touted as a treatment for a wide range of conditions — including anxiety, pain, inflammation and even cancer — but little reliable research has been done on CBD’s effects on humans, experts say. The only FDA-approved CBD oil is Epidiolex, an oral solution prescribed for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare, severe forms of epilepsy.
“Societies have jumped far far ahead of science,” said Dr. Margaret Haney, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University Medical Center and director of Columbia’s Marijuana Research Laboratory. “So it’s showing up in lotions and pretty much any form of product one can use. There’s a lot of different ways one could use CBD, but the ways we have studied CBD is much more limited.”
CVS has at least 9,800 stores nationwide and will soon roll out the CBD products in over 800 stores in the eight states. The health care chain says that effectiveness claims will vary from product-to-product, but that the company does not plan to market any of the items as a ‘cure-all’ product.
“We’re going to walk slowly, but this is something we think our customers will be looking for,” CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo said in an interview Wednesday with CNBC’s Jim Cramer.
The company noted that they would not be selling any CBD-based supplements or food additives. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, it is illegal to introduce drug ingredients like CBD into the food supply or to market them as dietary supplements.
“Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of the law, but also can put patients at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement in December.
For this reason, CVS will market the creams and salves as over-the-counter medicinal products, merchandised in a dedicated display.
To assure accurate labeling and safety for customers, CVS has partnered with Eurofins, a third party laboratory, to test all CBD topicals for THC, CBD content, and other contaminants, DeAngelis said in the statement to NBC News.
“We are working only with CBD product manufacturers that are complying with applicable laws and that meet CVS’s high standards for quality. Only products passing these independent tests are offered for sale in our stores,” the statement said.
Some experts believe the move by CVS to sell CBD over-the-counter may provide more questions than answers, at least initially.
“It’s a way to reduce the stigma for a product that really doesn’t deserve to be stigmatized,” said nutritionist and cannabis practitioner Brooke Alpert. “On the other hand, because of the lack of regulation it raises questions like: do people really know what they’re getting; can other brands get away with selling inferior products; and where can people find more information about these products?”
Another big concern for experts is that patients will avoid proven medications in favor of CBD.
“There have been more dangerous situations where people turn down effective medications to use unproven products, like CBD,” said Haney.