Is CBD a drug? The answer might depend on who you ask, as well as what exactly you mean by “drug.” Nailing down a definition for the term “drug” requires you to search through layers of political and cultural baggage — especially when discussing cannabidiol (CBD) or any other compound derived from the long-demonized cannabis plant.
In this post, we’ll look deeply at what it means to call a substance a drug, examining historical uses and modern definitions from medical and legal perspectives. We’ll also discuss the rising popularity of CBD, how the medical community has responded to that popularity, what types of CBD products consumers tend to favor, and what consumers typically use CBD for.
The definition and connotations of the term “drug” have evolved to match political landscapes and public opinion over the years, and there has long been debate over a proper definition of what qualifies as a drug.
Contemporary academic definitions, influenced perhaps by the negative connotations resulting from the War on Drugs, seem to emphasize safe usage as an essential characteristic of a drug.
Brick and Erickson’s respected Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior: The Pharmacology of Drug Use Disorders, for example, gives the following simple definition: “Drugs are therapeutic chemicals designed to have maximal benefit with minimal risk of side effects or toxicity.” The authors add that their book specifically addresses “psychoactive drugs — those drugs that change the way we think, feel, and behave by changing the functioning of the brain.”
Still, the term has historically been used to describe nearly any substance used in a medical context with the goal of improving patients’ well-being.
A brief letter to the editors of The British Medical Journal, published in 1967, illustrates this point while also demonstrating just how wide the definition of “drug” can be.
In the letter, a certain K. Farn of Atherstone, Warwickshire takes issue with a report published by the journal regarding the definition of drugs which gave preferential treatment to “rectified spirits” over gin or sherry for its recommended version of “the Brompton cocktail” — a mixture of morphine, cocaine, gin (or sherry, or brandy), and chloroform water used to ease the pain of tuberculosis patients.
Farn’s primary complaint? Gin and sherry were, at the time, significantly cheaper than the neutral alcohols classified as rectified spirits.
Another practical way to approach the question of what substances, compounds, molecules, and so on qualify as drugs is to turn to the legal codes governing the production, distribution, and control of drugs.
Under United States federal law, for example, a drug is a substance “recognized in the official United States Pharmacopoeia, official Homoeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States, or official National Formulary, or any supplement to any of them… intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in man or other animals… [and/or] [non-food substances] intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals.”
If we apply the broad definition referenced in Farn’s letter, which implies that a drug is any substance used in a wellness context based on current medical understandings, CBD is a drug. Brick and Erickson’s definition would lead us to the same conclusion based on what we know about how CBD can change our experiences of everything from sleep to social anxiety.
The question of whether CBD is a drug under U.S. federal law is a bit less clear, as CBD is no longer considered “marijuana” and isn’t restricted by the Controlled Substances Act in the same way as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main intoxicating compound in the cannabis plant.
As a simple, brief alternative to wading through the information presented above, consider asking yourself: Is CBD any different from acetaminophen (the main ingredient in Tylenol) or bismuth subsalicylate (the main ingredient in Pepto-Bismol), or even from common wellness-associated plants like camomile or ginger?
If your answer is “yes,” then you’d likely consider CBD a drug. What that means and how you use that information is a personal choice.
Currently, the only “drug product” approved by the Food & Drug Administration containing CBD is Epidiolex, “which contains a purified form of the drug substance CBD for the treatment of seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome in patients 1 years of age and older,” according to the agency.
Despite being the FDA’s only approved product featuring CBD, Epidiolex is far from the only CBD product on the market. Medical professional organizations have taken notice, responding to CBD’s recent boom in popularity.
“Patients report relief for a variety of conditions, particularly pain, without the intoxicating adverse effects of medical marijuana,” state the authors of a review article published in the internal medicine journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
“There is a growing body of preclinical and clinical evidence to support use of CBD oils for many conditions, suggesting its potential role as another option for treating challenging chronic pain or opioid addiction.”
Consumers have seized on CBD for a variety of wellness-related issues despite mixed evidence supporting specific use cases, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research that concludes with a call for better public messaging about the effectiveness of CBD.
The study, which used data from a 2019 self-report survey to gather responses from 45,330 residents of the U.S. and Canada between the ages of 16 and 64, found that 26% of surveyed Americans and 16% of surveyed Canadians used CBD in the last year.
Of the respondents who said they’d used CBD in the last year, about 60% “reported using CBD to improve/manage symptoms of a health concern,” with “management of pain, anxiety, and depression” being the most common wellness-oriented goals stated by respondents.
Respondents’ CBD products of choice were, in order from most to least popular, drops (i.e., tinctures and oils), topicals, edibles, vape oils, capsules, and dried flower.
Despite CBD’s legal status in the United States, the lack of regulatory oversight governing the CBD industry has left many consumers using products that aren’t quite what they say on the label. For American consumers, purchasing CBD from a respected vendor with a reputation for high-quality standards is an essential part of taking a safe approach to incorporating CBD into your wellness routine.
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