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What's So Great About Cbd?

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Leafly Investigation: Why Are CBD Prices So Confusing?

July 18, 2017
 
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Last summer I was hit with a nasty illness called gouty arthritis which caused my toes to swell to the size of gherkins. Walking was torture. Each step felt like a hot knife stabbing into the joints of my bloated digits. Even the weight of a single cotton sheet bearing down during sleep was unbearable.

 
Why the price disparity? Some products offer CBD at 5 cents per milligram. Others charge four to ten times as much.

I am an active, healthy man, but this condition left me feeling hobbled, unhappy and unfashionable. The only shoes I could comfortably wear were Birkenstocks, which just look wrong with a suit. I spent thousands of dollars on dozens of blood tests only to be told by the specialists at NYU’s Langone Medical Center that my best treatment option was Advil.

That was not a welcome prescription. Advil and other NSAID anti-inflammatories can, over time, can lead to damaged liver, kidneys, and, in extreme cases, death. An estimated 16,500 Americans die each year from complications related to these drugs.

The bigger problem for me was that NSAIDs offered spotty and unreliable relief.

So I looked into a cannabis-based solution.

On my next trip to Colorado, I bought some cannabidiol (CBD) tinctures, pills and salves. While CBD is no cure for arthritis—nothing can replace the joint lubricating synovial fluid once it diminishes—one 25 ml dose of tincture twice a day under the tongue, plus the occasional puff of CBD oil in a vape pen and the obligatory Omega 3 oils (which, I subsequently learned, optimize the cannabinoid receptors in the body) has noticeably reduced my pain. I am steadier on my feet and back in shoes.

But the fact is, when it comes to CBD medications I, like most patients, am groping in the dark. There are no reliable dosage guidelines for specific conditions, nor are there standard measurements, which is confusing when attempting to compare products. Most patients don’t understand which delivery system is optimal: Capsule? Tincture? Flower?

What’s more, the complete absence of federal safety regulations means the purity of CBD is always in question.

The most confusing and frustrating aspect, though, is the vast disparity in price. Some products offer CBD at 5 cents per milligram. Others charge four times as much—20 cents per mg. One company charges 60 cents per mg!

Here are the latest prices I could find online:

Brand Total CBD (mg) Price $ per mg
Green Mountain 600 $ 30 $ 0.05
CW Simply Hemp 2100 $ 120 $ 0.06
Infinite CBD 100 $ 8 $ 0.08
Endoca 300 $ 31 $ 0.10
Plus CBD Oil 600 $ 54 $ 0.11
Highland Pharms 450 $ 50 $ 0.11
Tasty Hemp Oil 450 $ 50 $ 0.11
Aunt Zelda's 600 $ 70 $ 0.12
RSHO Gold Label 750 $ 119 $ 0.16
ETST Earth Science Tech 450 $ 85 $ 0.19
Dixie Botanicals 750 $ 149 $ 0.20
Imbue Botanicals 300 $ 64 $ 0.23
Mary's Nutritionals Elite 150 $ 90 $ 0.60

Consider this: Pine Tsunami, a low-THC (4.5%), high-CBD (15.3%) strain of cannabis flower, sells at Vela in Seattle for $184 an ounce. Chanel No.5 Grand Extrait perfume retails online for $276 an ounce. An ounce of HP printer ink goes for about $75 at Staples. A bar of .999 percent pure silver costs $18 an ounce. Most medicinal dried herbs retail for under $4 an ounce.

Pure CBD, at 10 cents per milligram, carries a consumer cost of $2,835 an ounce—more than twice that of pure gold.

If you scatter plot the prices of CBD for sale online, you get a sense of the helter-skelter nature of the market:

 

What gives? Are some producers turning this medicine into the “weed of greed? Or is the still-lingering weight of prohibition driving prices skyward?

As a journalist with piqued curiosity, and a patient seeking reliable medicine at a reasonable price, I decided to investigate.

 
 
 

Are some producers turning CBD into the 'weed of greed'?

 

Hard to Know What You’re Getting

Even as public awareness of CBD’s healing potential has grown, it remains difficult to assess the quality, safety, and, importantly, the origin of most CBD products, thanks to the 80-year federal prohibition of cannabis and the resulting lack of both research and regulation.

“God knows what toxins are in the hemp processed in countries like China or Romania.”
Dr. Ethan Russo, leading cannabis researcher

Even though the law does not classify CBD as a Schedule I narcotic, the DEA claims that it is. (CBD, unlike THC, is not psychoactive.) That discrepancy leaves a lot of gray area when it comes to knowing how to operate. “It’s why some manufacturers don’t list CBD on the label,” says Heather Jackson, CEO and co-founder of Realm of Caring, a patient research and advocacy nonprofit in Colorado. “They may list ‘hemp extract,’ which is code for the entire cannabinoid content, but not necessarily CBD.”

Until recently, hemp growing and production was banned in the United States. As a result, much of the CBD being used today is extracted from hemp grown in Europe, or in some cases, China. (Google “CBD powder” and Alibaba and see what comes up.) This is troubling. Hemp has an extraordinary ability to absorb toxins from polluted soils—it’s a natural soil remediator. After the 1988 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, hemp was planted around the contaminated disaster site for exactly that reason. Oils extracted from plants grown near soils contaminated by pesticides or industrial effluents may contain those impurities in concentrated amounts. In today’s CBD market, manufacturers are under no obligation to tell consumers where their hemp was grown or to test it for contaminants.

Screen-Shot-2017-07-18-at-1.48.43-PM.png Caveat emptor: Chinese-sourced CBD powder can be ordered in bulk for less than 2¢/mg on Alibaba.com.

“God knows what toxins are in the hemp processed in countries like China or Romania, which don’t have the same laws about pesticide use that we have,” says Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist, ethnobotanist, and one of America’s leading researchers into medical cannabis. “I don’t trust any of it and I don’t think anyone else should either.”

It's a tough choice for patients: $200/month for CBD or $11/month for Advil.

The good news is that it’s increasingly possible to source higher-quality, laboratory-tested CBD derived from organic hemp grown in Western European countries—Austria, Germany, the Netherlands—with strong environmental regulations. High-quality hemp oils from Europe now wholesale for 0.5 cents to 1 cent per milligram. If encapsulating, bottling, and labeling that oil doubles the production cost, a manufacturer filling a pill bottle with 30 20-mg capsules (a standard dose) and selling that bottle online for $60 (8 cents/mg) is realizing at least a 400% markup. 

While that may suit American manufacturers, it’s challenging for financially strapped patients who must cough up $200 to $300 a month—the equivalent of a monthly car lease—for CBD meds. In a rational world, health insurance would cover much of that cost. But the federal government still refuses to treat cannabinoid medicine with any sort of rationality. For people on fixed or low incomes, CBD isn’t a sustainable option, especially compared to an NSAID like Advil, which clocks in at about 6 cents per pill, or about $11 per month.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, the renowned Harvard psychiatrist who wrote the 1972 best seller Marihuana Reconsidered, dubbed medical marijuana “the people’s medicine,” precisely because it could be made economically or grown at home. But at this price, CBD is more of a luxury product than an affordable treatment, less for the people and more for the pashas.

The Price of Risk

I’m a patient, but I’m also a small business owner. I understand the challenge of conducting business in the cannabis space, which in many states is still considered a criminal activity. The media crows about “marijuana millionaires,” but the weight of prohibition can often be crushing to a small business with high startup costs, low revenue, and a fair amount of risk.

Federal law doesn't directly address the status of CBD. But the DEA claims it's illegal.

CBD producers shoulder a greater risk than the maker of any “normal channel” medicine. With the Trump administration sending mixed signals on hemp oil—the DEA’s notorious December 2016 Federal Register rule had manufacturers fretting that the government would ban it outright—the risk could suddenly turn hazardous.

Still, it’s difficult to fathom why CBD, derived from an easily grown and processed weed, is ten times more expensive than a precious metal.

Is Green the New Silver?

Prohibition imposes a criminal risk factor, certainly. But cocaine carries a far greater risk factor than CBD. And at $100 per gram, cocaine sells for the same exact price—$2,835 per ounce. So legal risk can’t be the only reason.

As I asked industry manufacturers, retailers, consumers, and researchers to explain the high price of CBD, five answers were consistently floated: inefficient farming and production, the costs of introducing a new product into an unregulated market, insufficient consumer information, limited patient access, and greed.

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