Wonder drug or modern-day snake oil? Appearing in stores and online in the form of body lotions, capsules, tinctures, edible gummies and bottled water, CBD has exploded in popularity as a way to reap the supposed health benefits of marijuana without the high that comes with it. All this is in spite of the paucity of evidence of its merits so far.

1. What is CBD?

CBD, or cannabidiol, is one of more than 100molecules called cannabinoids that are found in cannabis. Unlike the nearly identical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the main active ingredient in pot, CBD doesn’t produce a buzz. According to a report by the World Health Organization, it hasn’t exhibited any potential for abuse or dependence, and there is no evidence of any public health-related problems associated with its use.

2. What does it do?

CBD has been touted as a potential treatment for any number of ailments, among them depression, insomnia, brain injuryopioid addictiondiabetesarthritis, and graft versus host disease. Pre-clinical trials suggest CBD may have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties, but there have been few human trials to substantiate the claims. Several clinical trials are in the works, including one testing its use to combat nausea during chemotherapy, and another on how it affects mood. For now, its only approved medical use in the U.S. is as a treatment of two rare forms of childhood epilepsy.

3. How many people are using it?

Almost 7% of Americans polled in January by investment bank Cowen & Co. reported using CBD as a supplement. Big chains such as CVS, Walgreens and Kroger are now selling CBD lotions and other products. Cowen estimated that U.S. retail sales were as high as $2 billion in 2018, and analysts at Piper Jaffray & Co. estimated that the U.S. CBD market could be worth as much as $15 billion in five years. The research firm Brightfield Group estimated that CBD was a $318 million market in Europe in 2018.

That’s complicated, at least in the U.S. A federal law last year lifted a ban on the production of hemp, which had previously been classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic. CBD oils processed from hemp are now legal to possess, as long as they contain no more than 0.3% THC. But the FDA said in statement that it is illegal to sell foods containing the compound or to market it as a dietary supplement, leading some states that have already legalized cannabis to crack down on merchants selling CBD products. The FDA is reviewinghow it should regulate CBD products in food and drinks.

5. And elsewhere?

CBD products can legally be purchased in Canada only in licensed marijuana dispensaries, and for now only in the form of dried flower or oils. Topicals, extracts and edibles will be legalized later this year. The European Food Safety Authority considers it a novel food, meaning the agency has to perform a safety risk assessment of any product containing CBD before it can be sold in the EU.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Kristine Owram

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