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Cannabis has been given a chic rebrand. But are the (legal) products worth it?

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Alexandra Jones
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As Canada becomes the second country to legalise marijuana, Stylist investigates our most chilled-out revolution yet.

“The dose in each drink is 10mg,” explains Alex Harris, founder of Behind This Wall, a bar in east London. Served in a thin-rimmed glass tumbler, over rough-cut ice cubes, the drink is a dark amber colour and complex on the palate. It has bitter, herbal notes undercut with just enough honey sweetness and ginger-spice. I nod, “Yeah, I think I feel more relaxed… Maybe…”

Like tendrils of heady blue smoke through an open window, over the past year cannabis has been slowly seeping into every part of our lives. Behind This Wall started offering cannabis cocktails in February. In May, Stylist beauty editor Lucy Partington wrote about the cleansers and eye creams, oils and fragrances that had been landing on the Stylist beauty desk, all of which had one common ingredient: cannabis.

In August, LDN CBD, a Scandi-chic boutique selling cannabis tinctures, oils and pills opened in north London. And around the same time, fitness studio Frame began offering cannabis-spiked smoothies to their barre-honed clientele (“it is known to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties,” explains Frame’s PR and brand manager, Jayne Robinson). It is being explored as an ingredient in everything from anti-psychotic medications to Coca-Cola.

Friends, the revolution has started, and it’s going to be a chilled one.

Medical marijuana shops in Venice Beach, California, where weed was legalised earlier this year 

Admittedly, we’re in no danger of becoming the next Venice Beach-style stoners’ paradise (recreational marijuana was legalised in California at the start of this year). These products are all made with cannabidiol – or CBD – a non-psychoactive (and therefore legal) derivative of the cannabis plant.

But while our laws may not be as permitting as those in California, our weed-culture is nevertheless going through its own glow-up.

“Over the past five years, cannabis and its benefits have been totally rebranded,” explains Victoria Buchanan, a strategic researcher at trend forecasting agency The Future Laboratory. “It has been reconsidered and repackaged as a sophisticated product, a shift in attitude that has been driven by the US market, where 31 of 50 states have now legalised medical marijuana.”

Even in the UK, she points out, medical, cannabis-derived products were green-lit by home secretary Sajid Javid in July this year, although they have yet to be made legal.

“As legal restrictions on cannabis consumption have loosened around the world, [recreational cannabis was legalised in Canada just last week] so too have consumer attitudes,” adds Buchanan.

It’s a far cry from the students and stoners who saw the potential five-year prison sentence (for possession alone) as a worthwhile risk if it meant they got to live the high life. How times have changed.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a non-psychoactive and legal derivative of the cannabis plant

The new high life explained

So, tell me what CBD is good for?

Well, we won’t get Cheech and Chong-grade mellow from taking it, but the excitement around CBD might not be misplaced. In fact, over the past 10 years, there have been a number of scientific studies which have found that CBD may well be an effective treatment for short-term anxiety. 

Other studies have also pointed to that fact that it has anti-inflammatory, anti-pain and anti-psychotic properties. 

Dr Amir Englund is a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. He’s spent years delving into the neuropharmacological and emotional impact of the various active chemicals in cannabis – including CBD.

“More money and time is being poured into researching cannabis because initial studies have shown promising results,” he explains.

Behind This Wall’s Harris first came across mixologists experimenting with cannabis compounds while living and working in LA in 2015. He’s pragmatic: “I think if you feel better, then that’s something.”

He aligns our increased interest in cannabis – and CBD – with the growing trend for sobriety. “Personally, I feel like CBD has a relaxant effect on the body,” he explains. “And a lot of the time, when people crave alcohol, that’s the feeling they’re chasing. It’s a glass of red wine after work to mellow out.”

Will it get me even a bit high?

Sorry to break it to you Cheech, anything you can buy legally in the UK won’t get you buzzed. The cocktails at Behind This Wall, the smoothies at Frame, the products at LDN CBD, they’re all cannabidiol (CBD)-based.

This non-psychoactive compound, found in the cannabis plant, is extracted in the UK from industrial hemp – grown legally because it is super-low in THC. That time you hit your little brother’s bong and then ate the entire contents of your mum’s fridge? That was thanks to mind-altering THC, and there’s very little of that here.

“We won’t get Cheech and Chong-grade mellow from taking CBD”: stoner comedians Cheech and Chong in 1974

I still don’t get it – so what does CBD actually do?

I’ll let Dr Englund explain: “CBD has a lot of mechanisms in the brain. For instance, it hits serotonin 1A receptors – which some pharmacologists believe accounts for the anti-anxiety effects.

“It is also an adenosine reuptake inhibitor; basically this means it boosts our levels of adenosine – the neurotransmitter which helps us feel relaxed or sleepy.”

Sounds promising…

Yep. So far, so promising. In one trial, Englund explains, taking a dose of CBD was shown to help participants feel less anxious during a stressful public speaking task. A 2015 analysis of several studies, published in the journal Neurotherapeutics, also found evidence that it could help to treat several forms of anxiety, including social anxiety, panic disorder and OCD. On a neurological level it makes us more chill.

Even more recently a CBD product underwent clinical trials for a rare form of treatment-resistant epilepsy. Hundreds of children were given CBD or a placebo and the CBD was shown to be much more effective at treating their symptoms.

…and yet you still seem sceptical?

Well, as with everything that’s been co-opted by the wellness industry, there’s one big, glaring ‘but’.

“In the bottles of oil, or capsules, that you can buy commercially,” says Dr Englund, “you’ll get such tiny amounts of actual CBD that it’s really unlikely to show any benefit.”

CBD oil you can buy commercially in the UK is unlikely to have much effect, says Dr Amir Englund

That’s a big ‘Ah’.

Exactly. Take the public speaking task, for example. The participants were given 100mg, 300mg and 800mg of pure CBD per dose. “The 300mg was shown to be most effective,” says Englund.

“But consider that in most commercially sold oils, for instance, you might get 300mg of liquid, but only 10% of that is actual CBD – in a whole bottle that’s only 30mg of CBD. And then, as per the instructions, you’re only meant to take a few drops at a time…”

In the epilepsy test, the doses were between 10 or 20mg per kg of body weight, every day. “So for someone weighing 70kg, a single dose was around 1500mg of pure CBD.” 

So you’re saying…

…that the benefits of anything you can buy on the high street might be a bit overstated. As Englund points out, “the reasons the doses have to be high is because CBD is not well absorbed when it’s ingested orally. Only about 6% actually gets into your system.”

So, that’s 6% of the few drops of the 30mg you just spend around £50 on… Honestly, at the moment, it seems a bit like turmeric lattes: a sandgrain of interesting science has become the foundation for a whole wellness movement. It’s just worth treading carefully before investing too much money. 

Would you try a CBD cocktail? 

Good to know. But you said you felt something?

Well, over the course of three days I tried capsules, oils, drinks and balms. I drank CBD-infused hemp water, knocked-back CBD cocktails and chewed on CBD-spiked sweets. I think I felt a little looser in my limbs. I’ve been having lower-back-pain (sitting, the silent killer), and during that time it all but disappeared.

It’s not something I noticed until Harris – in passing – noted that people took low doses to treat back pain, because CBD acted on the body, more than the mind. A small lightbulb went on, actually my back been pretty good over this time…

The highest dose I had in one go was the 10mg in the cocktail I bolted at Behind This Wall. I possibly felt a bit fuzzy. Pleasantly fuzzy. But given what Dr Englund told me, I think that might be a placebo effect. As he says, though, “the placebo effect is still pretty powerful”. 

So what’s your honest verdict?

Whether it’s the anti-anxiety herbal remedy we’ve all been waiting for or not, CBD is only set to get bigger. At the start of this month, non-alcoholic spirit brand Seedlip served CBD cocktails to the discerning drinks-industry crowd at The World’s 50 Best Bar Awards in London.

As Seedlip founder Ben Branson explains, “Cannabis is dramatically changing the landscape of how, where and when we socialise. In the US, the industry is expected to explode to $50bn by 2026; In Canada it is predicted to overtake the spirits industry by 2020 [in terms of worth and consumption].”

And given that earlier this year a poll revealed that 51% of us think cannabis should be available to buy in shops, like wine, maybe full legalisation isn’t so far off for us either. What a fully chilled-out Britain that would be.

From cocktails to capsules, Alexandra put eight of the coolest CBD products on the market to the test – read her honest verdict here.

Images: Getty Images 

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Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones is commissioning editor at Stylist magazine. She writes and commissions features on everything from dating to global feminism. She has bad taste in films, a penchant for pickled foodstuffs and a spiralizer that has yet to be unboxed.

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