We examine the ethical, scientific, and economic issues at the heart of the CBD industry
Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.
The news that Barney’s New York will soon open a cannabis boutique (or “luxury head shop,” as the company put it) in its Beverly Hills flagship feels like nothing so much as a sign that mainstream cannabis capitalism is approaching its apogee.
A confluence of factors has contributed to the legal cannabis industry’s runaway growth. The legalisation and decriminalisation of marijuana in many American states paved the way for dispensaries to welcome ever-more consumers, and alchemists of varying credibility to offer products loaded with CBD, THC, and a host of other cannabinoids that claim to cure everything from anxiety to insomnia to inflammation.
But legalization alone wasn’t enough to get Barney’s to stock vape pens by Céline and Alaia. It must instead be credited to the rise of “wellness” culture – a vague catch-all for such varied practices as mud baths, acupuncture, and turning your cell phone on airplane mode, which has industrialised at a staggering rate, shooting from a $3.7 trillion market in 2015 to a $4.2 trillion market in 2017, the last year for which data is available. Self-care has become as synonymous with Gen Z as fourth-wave feminism and has intersected with cannabis legalisation to a staggering and often problematic degree.
The CBD industry is expected to reach $22 billion in sales in three years. Sensing an opportunity, a spate of high-end cannabis companies, from Beboe (“the Hermès of marijuana”) to Med Men (“the Apple store of dispensaries,”) have cropped up to offer this new wave of wellness consumers natural replacements for their creams, potions, and pills. A ten minute walk through lower Manhattan Lower East Side and Bowery – arguably the ground zero of the affluently erstwhile-alternative – offers no less than five shops advertising cannabinoid-enhanced products as part of their signage, from à la carte hemp shots at Mamacha to CBD-infused ricotta-and-honey toast at Chillhouse, a coffee shop, nail salon, and massage studio. (It is worth noting that while CBD is currently legal in New York, THC is not.)
“This cheery rose-gold tint obscures the real issues still surrounding cannabis.”
But this cheery rose-gold tint obscures the real issues still surrounding cannabis that further commercialisation seems likely to exacerbate rather than solve. With prohibitionists lining up on one side (including, most recently, a series of confusing edicts from the New York City Department of Health) and all-in cannabis enthusiasts on the other, arguing over cannabis’ viability as a product obscures real questions still surrounding its utility as medicine.
Numerous scientific studies support using cannabis as a targeted intervention for a range of health issues. “There are thousands of research papers and many clinical trials,” says cannabis-centric scientist and author Lex Pelger. “CBD works by so many different biochemical mechanisms that we often don’t know what specifically is causing the effect. It interacts with receptors and enzymes like serotonin, dopamine, the opioid receptors, GABA, glutamate, and other enzymes that degrade anandamide. Sometimes called the neurotransmitter of balance, the levels of anandamide are increased when CBD slows down the enzyme that removes it.” In other words, CBD is going to help make all the systems in your body work like they’re supposed to and work well together.
But sceptics like University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of psychiatry Marcel Bonn-Miller point to the gauzy and sometimes downright false information on some commercial cannabis products. Bonn-Miller co-authored a study showing that the amount of CBD in a product is often mislabeled, nor is the inclusion of THC always properly disclosed, which can lead to “a number of negative consequences, ranging from addiction to cognitive impairment, anxiety… and risk of psychosis,” Bonn-Miller told the Washington Post.
The gap between the scientific and commercial is precisely where the cannabis-curious should exhibit the most caution. “The majority of the research being done, both in the lab and in clinical studies, uses high doses of CBD – hundreds of milligrams as compared to the typical 10-20mg doses seen in most over the counter products,” says Eileen Konieczny, RN of the American Cannabis Nurses Association. “Most consumers are unaware of this.”
“Race is another glaring fault line in the expansion of cannabis into an industry.”
Beyond medical efficacy, significant cost disparities between legal and illegal cannabis products pose a significant barrier to entry for those hoping to treat health conditions with legal drugs. Acquiring a medicinal marijuana prescription in the state of New York (currently only possible for those with one of twelve covered conditions) requires a referral from one of the state’s approved specialists, whose initial consult fees are typically around $250. After that, you’ll have to pay a fee to the state of New York, and then, of course, for whatever you acquire at a dispensary like Med Men, where a pen of “Awake” (a tincture with a 20:1 THC to CBD ratio) runs about $53. A joint from a dealer? $3-7.
Race is another glaring fault line in the expansion of cannabis into an industry. While there is no statistically significant difference in marijuana usage across racial lines, people of colour made up 86 percent of arrests for marijuana in 2017, and studies have shown they are almost four times as likely to be arrested for possession. Until a combination of national legalisation and less discriminatory policing practices erases this shameful gap, the idea of the acupuncture and avocado toast crowd purchasing $75 rose gold Indica vape pens at Barney’s while people of colour acquire life-altering criminal records for possession of the exact same substance and amount is difficult to countenance. The channelling of cannabis into a natural resource to be explored, acknowledged, and marketed for its benefits to a white, affluent population and demonised and criminalised to everyone else is simply socially unethical.
"The cannabis industry was built off the backs of the black and brown community which are being denied access to the commercialisation opportunity now that the regulatory landscape has shifted," agrees Dorian Morris, founder of CBD beauty brand Undefined Beauty. With Undefined, however, Morris is attempting to combat these issues and bring some positivity into the industry. "My goal is to infuse social good and purposeful impact into my business model to drive sustainable impact. Since my first collection Indigo Rose is focused on CBD, my social good is focused on female incarceration given the unfortunate situation that many in jail are there because of cannabis," she says. "I empower disenfranchised communities across my supply chain focusing on women-owned and minority-owned businesses – my manufacturing lab is female-founded, my 3PL warehouse is female-founded. Business can empower business. I think brands that focus on education and conscious capitalism will win in the end as consumers vote with their dollars."
People use cannabis for a wide spectrum of needs and desires. Healthy people use it to make their lives better, sexier, more expansive; people with devastating illnesses use it to manage their pain; people somewhere in between use it to contend with stress, anxiety, insomnia. As legalisation continues its seemingly-inexorable expansion, profit-making companies will have to fill the space once occupied by underground suppliers. How they can do so ethically and equitably is an issue that should be of concern to them all, particularly as purveyors of a product meant to promote no less than peace, harmony, and wellbeing. It is unrealistic to expect suppliers of any marketable product to adhere to a price cap, but those looking to get into the cannabis space might consider a sliding scale where customers may choose what they pay.
So long as the current headwinds prevail, Barney’s is unlikely to stop stocking $950 bongs, $1,400 grinders, and swank French rolling papers. But consumers concerned with accessibility have plenty of other options to keep their ethics in check as they explore cannabis and its range of potential benefits. Companies like Hempmetics are committed to keeping prices low in the name of accessibility, whiles platforms such as Project CBD are actively involved in expanding cannabis research that will not only answer lingering medical questions but also have the potential to pave the way for the expanded legality of more products, which means – according to one of capitalism’s few positive dicta – lower prices. Until then, Barney’s is just a step along the way – and not necessarily in the right direction – to commercialised cannabis’ ethical mandate – to make it accessible to all, and criminal for none.