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Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk

The claim from the sales person to the undercover Marketplace crew seemed straightforward enough: a CBD-infused balm will “100 per cent” help with back pain and “in 15 minutes it will feel like relief.” But not only is that promise a complete exaggeration, both that claim and the product are illegal.

A CBC Marketplace investigation has found hundreds of illegal CBD products for sale in a thriving Canadian black market. Going undercover, we found products are easily available and salespeople are willing to make extravagant and illicit health claims.

  • Watch Marketplace tonight at 8 p.m. (8:30 in NT) on CBC-TV and CBC Gem.

While Canadians look to CBD for its promise as a health remedy, Marketplace has found there’s no control over what goes into the illegal black market products — and no way to test them. 

In fact, the CBC lawyers advising on this story said that Marketplace could not legally test black market products because it would mean breaking laws that police controlled substances. It’s a hurdle tripping up many Canadian researchers — and it means no one really knows what is in the illicit CBD being sold.

Unlike in the U.S., CBD is a controlled substance in Canada; it is considered among drugs the government thinks can be addictive or potentially abused. These include illegal street drugs and prescription medication. CBD was lumped in with THC when cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018. 

Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk
Illegal CBD products sold at Sensitiva, an unlicensed CBD store in Toronto. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

That means, like other cannabis products, only government-licensed retailers are allowed to sell CBD products and there are strict rules and regulations around who is allowed to grow, process and distribute CBD products. 

For example, in Ontario, authorized CBD products can only be legally purchased online at the Ontario Cannabis Store, from authorized licensed dispensaries or with a medical note from authorized stores such as Shoppers Drug Mart. In British Columbia, BC Cannabis Store is the only legal place to buy CBD online. 

It is also illegal to make any health or cosmetic claims about CBD products in Canada. To make a health claim, the product requires approval as a prescription drug under the Food and Drugs Act. No CBD products in Canada have that approval.

That didn’t stop a salesperson at Calyx Wellness, another unlicensed CBD store in Toronto, from making bold claims about CBD: “From what I’ve heard, it depends on your situation, but it’ll help with anything,” she told the undercover Marketplace crew.

“It’s kind of like a superpower almost.”

WATCH: Hidden cameras show employees discussing unproven CBD claims:

Marketplace finds hundreds of illegal cannabidiol products on sale in Canada, many that come with prohibited health claims and ingredients that can’t be legally verified. 2:07

‘We’ve got very little evidence’

CBD is one of many compounds found in the cannabis plant, but unlike the more well-known THC it doesn’t get you high. While some preliminary research suggests therapeutic uses for CBD — primarily for anxiety, insomnia and pain — experts say more research is needed.   

Take that CBD-infused balm from Sensitiva on Queen Street West in Toronto, for example. Jason Busse, the associate director of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research, says CBD doesn’t dissolve in water and most topicals, he says, are unlikely to penetrate the skin. While a minority of individuals will find some benefit, Busse says, “We’ve got very little evidence as to whether these topical preparations work and whether CBD in isolation works.”

Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk
Jason Busse, associate director of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

The lack of strong scientific evidence around CBD hasn’t stopped the black market from offering everything from tinctures, oils, creams and chocolate to shampoo, face masks and personal lubricants, with claims CBD can help with everything from writer’s cramp to “halting the duplication of cancerous cells.”

At Sensitiva, the salesperson pitched us on the benefits of topical CBD products: “CBD helps with inflammation in your body and that can be something topical like skin rashes, psoriasis, acne, wrinkles, sun damage, etc., which is why most of our products are topical.”

Marketplace visited two unlicensed stores specializing in CBD in downtown Toronto, and viewed dozens of black market websites selling illegal CBD. We showed Busse clips of Marketplace‘s hidden camera investigation.

“Right now there’s an opportunity to sell this product and sell a lot of it, and because we don’t have a lot of evidence [to back up health claims], marketing fills that gap,” said Busse.

An exploding market

The popularity of CBD, or cannabidiol, has exploded in recent years, riding a wave of anecdotes and celebrity endorsements, with everyone from Kim Kardashian to Martha Stewart promoting its benefits. Early research has found that while CBD may interact with other drugs, it does not have any addictive properties or major side effects, according to the World Health Organization.  

In the U.S., legislation around CBD was relaxed with the 2018 Farm Bill, removing CBD derived from hemp (CBD with less than .3 per cent THC) from the Controlled Substances list. Sales of CBD in the U.S. grew to US$ 4.7 billion in 2020. 

Experts say because of widespread availability in the U.S., Canadians may not realize that the CBD products that have sprung up at their local farmer’s market, CBD boutique store, unlicensed websites or even pet stores are all illegal. 

“It’s a Wild West, it’s buyer beware. There’s hundreds of these websites making all kinds of claims from A to Z,” Busse said. “And it’s left to the consumer to somehow sort all this out.”

What’s in black market CBD? 

CBD products sold on the black market don’t undergo the same rigorous standards of testing that licensed CBD products go through.

While some of the black market sites Marketplace examined did provide test results, it wasn’t clear if all lots or batches were tested, and some sites provided results that were years out of date.

Busse says because CBD is regulated as a controlled substance, which puts it in the same legal category as drugs like fentanyl, he and other researchers have run into the same legal hurdles as the CBC in their attempts to test black market CBD products.

“These products can be acquired by anyone in Canada with an internet connection and a credit card,” Busse said. “But you can’t actually test what all these people are using, which seems very counterintuitive.”

U.S. tests find half of CBD products contain undisclosed THC 

Testing may be tricky in Canada, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly tests CBD products. Busse says that removing CBD as a controlled substance in the U.S. has made it easier for U.S. researchers to study, evaluate and to test the products on the market.

The FDA has found many products do not contain the CBD they claimed, and up to 50 per cent of products the agency tested contained undisclosed THC. 

Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk
CBD is found everywhere, from gummi bears and chocolate bars, to pet treats and vape pens to face creams. (CBC)

Unexpected THC can cause sedation, anxiety or even paranoia. That’s what happened to a New Brunswick woman in 2019 after she unknowingly purchased an unlicensed CBD product to help with her anxiety.

“We have a real problem in terms of what people think they’re buying and in many cases what they actually get,” Busse said, noting CBD products are not cheap and can cost up to hundreds of dollars. 

The missing science around CBD

As popular demand outpaces medical research on CBD, the lack of study is both a worry and frustration for doctors like Hance Clarke. 

Clarke, who is director of Pain Services at Toronto General Hospital, is also running an observational study on how cannabis, including CBD products, can help with chronic pain, sleep, anxiety and depression. 

Clarke estimates about one in every three individuals get some benefit from CBD treatments, but he says it is no “utopia” and more research is needed. He says doctors need more clinical trials and proven data to confidently discuss CBD with their patients. He agrees with Busse that the legal hurdles placed by Health Canada around testing and research need to be removed.

“Show me that it works better than a placebo,” Clarke said. “Until we can get some of that data, which we are handcuffed right now to get, that’s when we can actually be certain what we’re doing.”

While Clarke says CBD may help with pain treatments, he worries that too many Canadians are getting health advice from websites or salespeople, not medical professionals who can alert patients to potential drug interactions. 

CBD metabolizes in the liver, and both Clarke and Busse want to see more research done on how CBD can interact with medications like blood thinners, antidepressants, opioids and benzodiazepines, as well as anti-seizure and chemotherapy drugs.

CBD for pets is also illegal

Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk
Sarah Silcox, palliative care vet and founder of the Canadian Association of Veterinary Cannabinoid Medicine. (Steven D’Souza/CBC)

Pet owners treating their animals is another big growth area for CBD, and another example of consumers often crossing into illicit territory and maybe not realizing it.

In Canada, any CBD products marketed for pets are illegal and veterinarians are prevented from prescribing it. 

So when palliative care veterinarian Dr. Sarah Silcox was called to help Robyn Golding find an end-of-life treatment for Golding’s dog, Georgia, Silcox could only offer “guidance” and dosage help. Silcox recommended Golding try CBD, and suggested human CBD from a legal dispensary on the nine-year-old Shiloh Shepherd.

The results, Golding says, are more than her family ever dreamed. Six months after complications from surgery left Georgia in chronic pain and unable to use her hind legs, Georgia is now hobbling around happily, a new lease on life that Golding says is thanks to CBD.

“She probably wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t seen results,” said the Whitby, Ont., resident, who says she’s glad she “had an open mind” about trying CBD for her dog. 

While it is illegal to test black market CBD products in Canada, Marketplace did find one group of veterinary researchers in Saskatchewan and Ontario who tested a small sample of illicit Canadian CBD products marketed for pets. The study found the CBD levels were often mislabelled; some of the CBD potencies were either “dramatically lower than the stated cannabinoid content, or simply undetectable.” One CBD pet product had almost no CBD but high levels of undisclosed THC. Contaminants and pesticides were also found. 

Silcox, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Veterinary Cannabinoid Medicine, says undisclosed THC is a big concern as animals can end up in the emergency room with adverse effects from THC ingestion and intoxication.

Silcox said she would like to see pet products containing CBD regulated by Health Canada. She also wants vets to have the power to authorize CBD to pet owners. 

The two unlicensed CBD stores Marketplace visited with hidden cameras, Calyx Wellness and Sensitiva, did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.

Health Canada says it is reviewing how Canadians use cannabis. The agency held public consultations in 2019, and in November 2020 launched the Science Advisory Committee for Health Products Containing Cannabis. A review of the current legislation is also in the works, but a report isn’t expected until about 2023. 

Health Canada did not say whether or not it will be declassifying CBD as a controlled substance. 

“If we can get there,” Busse said, “I think we can start to provide evidence that can fill these very large gaps that currently exist out there, and push back where needed on some of the overly aggressive marketing claims that are being made.”

  • If you have tips on this or any other story, please email the Marketplace team at marketplace@cbc.ca

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