Type ‘CBD Oil’ into amazon.co.uk today and you will be met with nearly 200 results over 13 pages. The majority of these results will be for small quantities of oil obtained from industrial hemp, with a few waxes thrown in and even one seller offering 50g of hemp ‘bud’, supposedly for making tea with.

It seems the explosion in popularity of these hemp-derived products, which has ramped up due to increased public knowledge of the medical benefits of cannabinoids, is unlikely to slow down any time soon. But is ingesting an oil made from industrial hemp the same as ingesting cannabis? Is it even beneficial at all? These and others are questions that you should be asking yourself before parting with your hard-earned cash, and luckily we’re here to help cut through the confusion.

Firstly, it’s worth quickly covering what CBD is, and why it has grown in popularity to such a huge extent over the past few years. Cannabidiol (CBD) is typically the second most abundant cannabinoid found in plants of the genus Cannabis Sativa L. (i.e. cannabis and hemp).

Decades of selective breeding for higher levels of THC (the main psychoactive cannabinoid) meant that until fairly recently it was difficult to find strains of ‘recreational/medicinal’ cannabis (as opposed to hemp) containing much more than 1-2% CBD. In stark contrast to that, industrial hemp cultivars were selectively bred to reduce the amount of THC present, and ended up, in some cases, with considerably higher levels of CBD than their recreational/medicinal cousins, although there still wasn’t much of it.

Now though, thanks in large part to the efforts of companies such as the CBD Crew, it is easy to get your hands on strains of cannabis which contain both THC and CBD in reasonably high quantities, with most strains containing a 1:1 ratio of the two.

The reason why these strains were developed is down to much medical need and a little bit of economics. As more research has been conducted on CBD its potential medical applications have constantly amazed.

It is perhaps best known as an anticonvulsant, which makes it excellent at treating seizures. This was brought to the public’s attention back in 2013 in CNN’s documentary ‘Weed’, with Dr Sanjay Gupta. In the documentary Gupta interviewed the Figi family, the joint-youngest member of which, Charlotte, suffers from a rare and extremely serious form of epilepsy called Dravet’s Syndrome. To cut a long story short, the only medicine which controlled Charlotte’s seizures was high-CBD cannabis oil, and she’d tried everything.

For the sake of scientific accuracy, it is important to note that not all scientists are convinced, as yet, of CBD’s efficacy as an epilepsy drug, but with Charlotte at least it seems to have worked wonders.

At the time of ‘Weed’s airing, there was a growing market for high-CBD flowers and oils, and stabilised genetics were already available, but after the story went out on CNN there was an explosion of interest. Most of this came from people suffering various forms of epilepsy, or their friends and family, but the film also spiked interest in the other qualities of CBD.

Not only is CBD an anticonvulsant, it is also an antiemetic, anti-inflammatory, and is even showing promise as an antipsychotic. In other words, far from causing ‘reefer madness’, it seems that CBD could well be an effective treatment for psychoses.

Naturally, whilst people in more enlightened parts of the world were able to legally obtain CBD oils, flowers, edibles, etc., in order to find out whether they could benefit from using them, most could not. And since high-CBD cannabis is rarely, if ever, being sold by the local neighbourhood dealer, desperate people were forced to look elsewhere. What emerged was an untapped market with no supplier.

That wasn’t the case for long though, as into that void stepped companies like Medical Marijuana Inc., owners of one of the first and most popular brands of ‘CBD Hemp Oil’ on the market: Real Scientific Hemp Oil.

These companies offered people the chance to buy oil marketed as containing as much as 24% CBD or higher, for often extortionate amounts of money – 60g of RSHO Gold Label will set you back $1,999 – and whilst the price has come down in many cases, many have been worried from the beginning about the quality, safety, and efficacy of these products.

That’s because ‘CBD Hemp Oil’ is not the same as cannabis oil properly produced from a cannabis plant containing the full spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenoids. And since the market operates in a grey area, the safety standards cannot necessarily be trusted. The oil being purchased and ingested may contain CBD, but that doesn’t guarantee a thing.

Which is a problem where sick people are concerned, because they need to know exactly what they’re consuming. If the oil helps them, they need to know they can get another batch of exactly the same purity and potency. And if it doesn’t, it needs to be because CBD simply isn’t effective for them, not because they’ve actually eaten a syringe full of something barely resembling quality, full-spectrum, cannabis oil.

Unfortunately for everyone, there isn’t much that can be done to ensure the safety of what you’re buying. Which isn’t by any means to say that all hemp-derived CBD oils are dangerous, a lot of them now will show you test results and do genuinely have strict safety protocols in place. I have no doubt that some, probably most, of the oils on the market are in some way capable of helping people, but it’s hard to know which without trying, which is always a risk.

Luckily, there are people out there doing the leg work and testing samples of hemp oil to find out what’s really in them. On October 14th, 2014, projectcbd.org released a report into Medical Marijuana Inc., Kannaway and others. As they put it themselves in their press release at the time:

“A six-month investigation by Project CBD has revealed potentially serious quality control issues in products marketed by Medical Marijuana Inc, (MJNA) and questionable financial dealings between MJNA and its affiliates and subsidiaries.”

The ‘financial dealings’ in question don’t need to be gotten into now, but the ‘serious quality control issues’ most definitely do.

Project CBD commissioned lab tests on samples of RSHO Gold, at least one of which was found to contain “significant levels of toxic solvents”, namely hexane. The samples they used were donated to them by parents of children who became violently ill after consuming the oil. As well as potentially extremely dangerous adulterants, lab tests carried out on RSHO samples found massive variation in the levels of both CBD and THC – many samples tested at far above the legal limit of 0.3% THC, meaning not only were these oils potentially toxic, they were also illegal in most of the world.

The point of bringing all of this up is not to make all hemp-derived CBD products and the companies who produce them out to be evil, or to scare anyone off trying CBD, but to point out that in a largely unregulated market it is vital to understand the difference between cannabis oil and hemp oil, and to do as much research as possible before spending money on anything.

Aside from the fact that the biggest hemp oil producers of them all have been shown to be selling an inferior and potentially harmful product, Project CBD list a few other reasons why hemp should be a last resort on their website:

• Industrial hemp typically contains far less cannabidiol than CBD-rich cannabis strains so a huge amount of industrial hemp is required to extract a small amount of CBD. This raises the risk of contaminants as hemp is a “bio-accumulator”—meaning the plant naturally draws toxins from the soil.

• Hemp-derived CBD and refined CBD powder lack critical medicinal terpenes and secondary cannabinoids found in cannabis oil. These compounds interact with CBD and THC to enhance their medicinal benefits.

• It’s against federal law to use hemp leaves and flowers to make drug products. Hemp oil entrepreneurs attempt to sidestep this legal hurdle by dubiously claiming they extract CBD only from hemp stalk before importing it to the United States, a grey area activity at best.

Clearly then there is an urgent and vital need for clarity when it comes to the difference between cannabis oil and hemp oil, and perhaps an even more urgent need for vigilance and caution when it comes to buying either.

My advice is not to never use hemp oil, I know people personally who have experienced benefits from it, but if you have no way of obtaining full-spectrum oil from the cannabis plant itself and do decide to go down the hemp route, do your research. And if you’re not sure, don’t take unnecessary risks.