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Illustration by Callum Abbott

‘Like Avon but for CBD’: the endometriosis sufferers propping up CBD MLMs

A new strain of multi-level marketing schemes is infiltrating the blossoming CBD industry, with chronic pain sufferers in their ranks

The UK CBD industry is booming. Products are being sold everywhere from B&M bargains for £1 to boutiques where CBD skincare can set you back up to £60 a tube. The most visible part of CBD’s upward trend may be wellness, but it’s also being used to help manage the symptoms of chronic illnesses. 

A recent report from the Centre for Medical Cannabis found 41 per cent of those using CBD in the past year did so for medicinal purposes. And beyond using CBD to help with symptoms, those with chronic conditions are beginning to sell it too.

As someone with endometriosis, I’ve noticed an uptick in CBD products packaged as ‘treatments’ for pelvic pain and in endometriosis sufferers taking and selling CBD. The five women I spoke to who have endometriosis and sell CBD first tried it as an alternative to painkillers like naproxen, tramadol, codeine, and even morphine they previously required but are now unable to. 

Jo Biggerstaffe Charlseton, a distributor for a CBD company, says painkillers are becoming more difficult to acquire on the NHS. “There’s so many people out there that are taking shedloads of meds (and) are having them cut because of the (risk of an) opioid crisis. The doctor goes: ‘Sorry we’re cutting down your codeine tablets, we’re cutting down your morphine’. They need to find alternatives.” And even when obtainable, painkillers have side-effects which makes long-term use unappetising, if not impossible. 

No wonder CBD, which is non-addictive and seems like a more natural and sustainable option, is attractive, as Dr Yewande Okuleye, Cannabis Medicine Health Strategist at the University of Leicester explains: "This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s the latest iteration of self-medication in a different patient group, which has come to our attention because of the increased popularity of CBD as an alternative treatment.”

Lack of regulation means brands can make misleading claims with little consequence. The UK’s Centre for Medical cannabis found 62 per cent of high street CBD products did not contain the amount of CBD claimed. And according to current guidelines, companies shouldn’t say their CBD product helps with any medical issue, but I’ve seen countless claiming to soothe, alleviate, treat and even cure everything from minor ailments to serious illnesses. 

Frankie Penfold, a team manager for a multi-level marketing CBD company who describes her job as “like Avon but for CBD” says: “It’s pretty horrendous when it comes to find(ing) out information. I reckon it took me a year to understand it enough to be confident with how to find good oil.” Meanwhile, Jo tested 11 different CBD brands before finding one she feels works. 

Once they have found a product they feel is effective, endometriosis sufferers naturally want to spread the word to save others money and time. And after recommending, for many, selling seems like a logical next step.

Sally Davies*, who isn’t allowed to talk publicly about the CBD company she works for, says: “I believed in it so much that I signed up to be a distributor. So many of my friends have medical issues and pain issues. I'm not one for fads like Slim Fast – I get on my high horse. But I said to them, you know me well enough to know I would not be talking to you about something if I didn't absolutely believe it.”

For those I spoke to, money wasn’t their main motivator in selling. As Frankie notes: “Helping people is my main priority, the money is a bonus.” However, setting up one’s own business or working for companies which allow flexible/home-working is an understandably attractive prospect for chronic pain sufferers, especially those with children.

“When it comes to multi-level marketing, unless you know the founders, you’re a number in the system”

In the CBD industry, multi-level marketing schemes proliferate. Though they aren’t as new (established companies like Avon and Body Shop at Home are MLMs), like CBD they are on the rise, and their legitimacy has proven more than a little dubious.

To join an MLM as a distributor (a non-salaried, commission-based role) you’ll usually have to pay a joining fee or buy several products. Some companies may even require distributors to do so regularly, and, if expensive, those involved can easily get into debt. Companies use distributors to help them tap into their pre-existing networks. Women with endometriosis are frequently part of social media support groups or have friends with chronic illnesses. From what we know of the prevailing MLM blueprint – from supplements, cosmetic brands, and clothing lines like Herbalife and Mary Kay – they prey on stay-at-home mothers and the unemployed, people at their most vulnerable, in need of relief, community, and cash.

Product sales are often not how distributors make serious money, but by signing up other sellers beneath them whose sales they then get a percentage of. Those who are “downline” (further down the MLM food chain) may find it hard to make anywhere near as much money as those upline, and many similar schemes have made headlines when distributors’ experiences don’t live up to expectations. 

The defined difference between MLMs and pyramid schemes is that MLMs centre on a product, whereas with pyramid schemes, it’s usually just the promise of one, and  it relies on recruitment overall. As both the CBD industry and CBD MLMs are so new, most of the women I spoke to were not far downline, which makes potential earnings higher and experiences – so far – more positive. It means all the women I speak to reject any notion that they’re in disadvantageous positions.

Frankie, who makes her entire salary selling CBD, said she isn’t pressured to sell, but acknowledges that’s not always the case. “You can sign up and do nothing. I know that (with) so many companies, you have to have orders and you're forking out money when you shouldn’t be. When it comes to multi-level marketing, unless you know the founders, you’re a number in the system.”

She continues: “Thankfully with (the current) company, because we’re so small still, and it’s so young, I have first hand communication with the founders. I'm doing well and I'm classed as a team manager so I've got most of the UK in my team which is great. I think I've really hit the jackpot with this company.” Frankie adds that she has worked for another MLM whose operations were not all above board. She tells me: “I had a bad experience because they were sending (the CBD product) illegally to the UK, and there was a lot of false advertising from the top dogs, from head office. That’s something that I really regret.”

“Although self-medication might provide relief for chronic pain, the potency and purity of wellness CBD products requires closer scrutiny”

As CBD industry MLMs remain so new, problematic trends and widespread contentious practices are yet to be seriously documented. Investigations into individual CBD companies in the US have however drawn concerning conclusions – Hempworx, which began life as My Daily Choice before its sudden pivot to CBD-focused products, has been found to have made over 100 illegitimate health claims by The Extract. The company was also reportedly found to be inflating the numbers sellers were earning – around $5,000 a month, unproved figures. Other brands, such as Kannaway, Dose of Nature, and First Fitness Nutrition, have been criticised for a range of issues, including lack of lab testing and low income potential – 22 MLMs, including Dose of Nature, were issued with FDA official warning lettters in the US last year. In the UK, the Food Standards Agency ruled in February that CBD products – from oils to drinks and food – had to be registered by March 2021 or they would be pulled from shelves. As they move to combat misleading market claims, high prices, and health concerns, the work to regulate the market could significantly impact the CBD MLMs.

Previous bad experiences with doctors can lead those with endometriosis to mistrust the medical system, so sufferers rely on their network for information in the absence of other guidance. Dr Okuleye notes: “Although self-medication might provide relief for chronic pain, the potency and purity of wellness CBD products requires closer scrutiny to ensure patients can maximise the therapeutic potential of medical cannabis. Ideally, this should be within a research setting which evaluates efficacy, safety, and dosage.”

The presence of distributors within Facebook support groups is contentious. They are often discouraged from promoting products and many group rules warn that promotional posts will be deleted and repeat offenders blocked.

Alex Cohen, who runs the small, independent company CBD Buddy, is suspicious of MLMs. “I'm not interested in building a huge conglomerate. I'm also not interested in MLM schemes, which, frankly, I think, are dangerous. I want to do (something) legitimate and uncomplicated.” She says she has friends who have worked for beauty MLMs like Arbonne, adding: “There’s something slightly not right about the fact that you do have to do this extra marketing. I think it’s counterproductive. If you have a product that is legitimately good and helping people, I just don't think it’s necessary.”

Cohen has some advice which may be helpful for those trying to navigate both the complicated world of buying and selling CBD: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”