CBD is found everywhere, from chocolate bars to pet treats and vape pens to face creams. While CBD itself holds real medicinal promise, Marketplace reveals many CBD products are illegal, come with unauthorized health claims not backed by science and ingredients that can’t be legally verified. Canada was one of the first countries to completely legalize cannabis — Including CBD oil. Learn where you can buy quality CBD oil in Canada.
Illegal, untested CBD products are everywhere and could be putting you at risk
CBD is found everywhere, from chocolate bars to pet treats and vape pens to face creams. While CBD itself holds real medicinal promise, Marketplace reveals many CBD products are illegal, come with unauthorized health claims not backed by science and ingredients that can’t be legally verified.
Thriving black market full of misleading health claims, potentially contaminated products
Steven D’Souza, Tyana Grundig, Greg Sadler · CBC News · Posted: Oct 22, 2021 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: October 23, 2021
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 | The full Marketplace investigation:
The Truth About CBD
CBD is found everywhere, from chocolate bars to pet treats, from face masks to moisturizers and bath bombs. A Marketplace investigation has found hundreds of illegal CBD products for sale.
While Canadians look to CBD, or cannabidiol, 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.
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:
Canada’s thriving black market for CBD
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.
‘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.”
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 CBD is found everywhere, from gummi bears and chocolate bars, to pet treats and vape pens to face creams. (Bill Arnold/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
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.
- Click here for Health Canada’s full response, tips on how to buy legal CBD, and more on our investigation.
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.”
Buying CBD in Canada — What You Need to Know
Since October 2018, cannabis — both hemp and marijuana are legal for both medical and recreational use.
Today, you can purchase hemp-derived CBD products and marijuana flowers across Canadian dispensaries without a doctor’s prescription.
Legal cannabis comes with strict regulation and plenty of legal hoops to jump through just to be able to operate in the Canadian market. Many companies operating in Europe and the United States are unavailable in Canada as a direct result of this.
The best place to find CBD products approved for the Canadian market is at CBD Oil Canada.
This article will take you on a walk through the Canadian CBD world where you’ll learn the best options for buying CBD.
Summary: Buying CBD in Canada
- For the most part, CBD oil brands in Canada aren’t available outside the country — for the best selection of Canadian-specific CBD products, check out the selection at CBD Oil Canada
- CBD is regulated under the Cannabis Act, and it falls under the same regulations as cannabis — regardless of its THC content
- CBD oils are completely legal in Canada, and you can buy it without a prescription
- You won’t be able to buy CBD oil from most US or European CBD brands (exception is Endoca)
- CBD retailers must be authorized to sell cannabis products — a process that can take many months and cripling legal fees
Best CBD Vendors in Canada
1. CBD Oil Canada (Third-Party Vendor)
CBD Oil Canada is an online shop that carries most of the Canadian vendors on this list. They’re a third-party vendor which means they don’t actually make their own CBD products — they merely offer a selection of different brands like any other retail or ecommerce shop.
2. Honest Botanicals
Honest Botanicals is based out of Vancouver where they have access to some of the best hemp in Canada, all year round. They carry all the essentials — topicals, oils, capsules, gummies, and a few other categories. Pricing remains competitive with the Canadian market and their products meet all the expectations for testing and potency.
3. Island Therapeutics
Island Therapeutics is based on Vancouver island. They specialize in full-spectrum holistic CBD products. Some of their products feature additional herbs and nutrients to provide even greater benefit for combatting symptoms like pain or anxiety.
4. Miss Envy
Miss Envy is another Vancouver-based company (seems to be a bit of a pattern here) with some top-notch cannabinoid products — not limited to just CBD.
This company carries some of the best CBD concentrates and phoenix tears we’ve tried yet.
How to Buy CBD Products in Canada (Legally)
The Canadian CBD market is very different from pretty much everywhere else simply because the whole plant is legal and regulated. The same restrictions apply whether a company is selling CBD oil or psychoactive THC oil.
In order for CBD brands to operate here, they need to spend a ton of money on legal fees and applications and endure a rigorous application process that can take over a year to complete.
This process makes the CBD industry much more reliable than in places like the US — but it also drives up the price of CBD oil and severely limits the number of companies that offer their products in Canada.
In order to even sell CBD oil in Canada, companies need to go through a completely separate application process that requires a lot of experience to navigate. This makes it both tedious and expensive.
This means many US brands haven’t bothered to apply and don’t offer direct shipping to Canada. It also means the CBD marketplace in Canada is very unique to the country. Many of the brands operating here aren’t offered anywhere else in the world.
The best place to shop for Canadian CBD products is through a Canadian CBD marketplace.
I live in Canada and have used this company several times. My favorite brand here is Island Therapeutics — which sell some really nice full-spectrum hemp extract grown in the beautiful Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.
Tips for Buying CBD in Canada
- Order from a Canadian-certified CBD retailer
- European CBD brands are more likely to ship to Canada than US brands
- Understand the differences between CBD oil and THC oil
- Expect to pay about 15% more for CBD oil in Canada compared to the US
- Know your retailer/company — shop from proven brands like Island Therapeutics
- Don’t look purely at aesthetics — your CBD product can have great branding and still be of poor quality
- Look for evidence of third-party testing before you buy
- Avoid buying CBD labeled with health claims — this is illegal in Canada
A Brief History of Cannabis Laws in Canada
Canada has a complex cannabis history.
At the beginning of the 19th century, hemp cultivation was considered “the source of wealth to settlers.” The government distributed hemp seeds to farmers in hopes of stimulating the economy for its many potential uses.
Towards the end of the century, cannabis production was replaced with cotton due to cheaper labor costs.
In 1923, cannabis was added on the Confidential Restricted List under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill — 14 years before the United States prohibited cannabis.
Historians believe that one of the main reasons for cannabis prohibition was a paragraph from the book, The Black Candle. The author, Emily Murphy — the first female magistrate in Canada — described cannabis as an initiator of homicidal tendencies in users.
In the period between 1930 – 1940, cannabis convictions increased. Through the following years, cannabis was more and more equated with marijuana, and its psychoactive effects, which ultimately affected hemp’s legal status.
Marijuana became popular in Canada in the 60s with the rise of the counterculture. Ten years later, advocates made efforts to legalize marijuana.
In 1998, the Canadian government allowed cultivation and processing of industrial hemp under very restrictive rules.
In 2003 and 2004, two bills on the decriminalization of recreational marijuana failed. In 2006, penalties increased, and the maximum sentence on cannabis production doubled from 7 to 14 years.
Today, under the Cannabis Act, cannabis — regardless of its THC content — is completely legal in Canada. The country allows the cultivation of both marijuana and industrial hemp.
Is CBD Legal In Canada?
Under the Cannabis Act, both marijuana and industrial hemp are completely legal in Canada. However, only cannabis licensed processors and retailers can extract, produce, and sell CBD.
For consumers, it’s easy to order CBD oils if you live in Canada. The hard part is for the people and companies selling CBD oil.
Canada has very strict regulations about who can sell cannabis products. Everything from the storage, labeling, advertising, and pricing are tightly controlled by the Canadian government.
Anybody that wants to sell CBD oils in Canada needs to go through a complicated application process that can take several months. The whole process costs a fortune and leaves a lot of startup founders pulling their hair out.
Is Delta 8 THC Legal in Canada?
The short answer is yes, all naturally-occurring analogs of THC are legal in Canada.
The active ingredient in marijuana is THC. Most THC in the cannabis plant is a specific isomer called delta 9 THC.
Lately, there’s been another version of THC circulating around called delta 8 THC. It’s popular because it gets a pass from some of the more prohibitive marijuana laws in places like the United States. Learn more about the legal status of delta 8 THC in the United States.
But it goes much further than this.
Delta 8 THC actually has a different high than the standard delta 9 isomer. It’s much more chilled-out and relaxing. People who find regular THC products too “anxiety-inducing” will likely prefer the effects of delta 8.
In Canada, delta 8 THC is entirely legal for both recreational and medical purposes. All marijuana-derived products are considered legal here, including the delta 8 isomer.
Canadian Law: What is The Cannabis Act?
During his campaign in 2015, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to legalize recreational marijuana. In October 2018, the Canadian Cannabis Act came into effect, amending the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and the Criminal Code.
Before the Cannabis Act, CBD was strictly regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and was illegal to produce it or sell unless it was authorized for medical or scientific purposes.
The Cannabis Act includes several regulations on the cannabis plant — both marijuana and hemp.
Following its rules, you must be at least 19 (18 in Alberta and Quebec) years of age to purchase cannabis products, and you’re limited to 30 grams of dried cannabis in public at a time.
30 grams is pretty generous. This works out to just over an ounce, which is plenty for most cannabis users in a given day, but not so much that it’s even worth selling on the black market.
The Canadian government employed strict penalties if users don’t abide by these rules. Possession over the 30 gram limit could lead to 5 years in prison.
Can I Take CBD Oils From Canada to the US?
It’s illegal to transport any cannabis products across the US-Canada border. This is true even in cases where the border-state considers CBD completely legal. Even though you’re traveling from Canada to a legal-US state, the border is the domain of the federal government — where Cannabis is considered a Schedule I drug.
Europe is also problematic for transporting CBD products. While I’ve heard many stories of people doing this without any issues — some countries strictly ban any cannabis products which could land you in some serious trouble if caught.
Do not cross any borders with CBD products.
How is Industrial Hemp Regulated Under the Cannabis Act?
The Cannabis Act includes a specific regulation on hemp, known as the Industrial Hemp Regulations Program (IHR). The Industrial Hemp Regulations Program defines hemp as a cannabis plant and plant parts with a THC content of 0.3% or less in the leaves and flowering heads .
Under this program, Canadian farmers can grow low-THC cannabis — which we’ll refer to as industrial hemp — under government-regulated conditions. To cultivate, process, and sell industrial hemp, Canadian farmers must obtain a federal license.
The IHR allows the procession and sale of industrial hemp derivatives such as hemp seed oil, hemp flour, and hemp seeds.
Under the IHR, industrial hemp does not include derivatives obtained from the flowering parts of the leaves.
Therefore, farmers who want to extract derivatives from industrial hemp (including CBD), must obtain a cannabis processing license.
The cannabis processing license authorizes the grower to cultivate hemp for the parts that have CBD and process them for CBD products.
Without this license, the hemp grower can still cultivate the plant for CBD-containing parts but only sell them to a licensed cannabis processor.
Final Notes on Buying CBD In Canada
Canada is a cannabis enthusiast’s dream. The country’s laws are friendly towards the cannabis plant — which means buying both hemp and marijuana products easy to buy online and in-store.
However, along with the openness comes a lot of regulation. Canada treats cannabis products a lot like alcohol — which means there are strict rules regulating who can make and sell CBD products.
Selling CBD oils in Canada requires a lot of money, and a lot of legal hoops to jump through which can take several months or longer.
Most of the CBD brands sold in Canada are strictly based out of Canada. You’ll be hard-pressed to find American CBD companies that ship that far North. You’re more likely to find a European company that ship CBD oils to Canada, but the shipping rates can be hard to justify.
Instead, head to a marketplace like CBD Oil Canada, or check out some Canadian CBD brands like Island Therapeutics, Ontario Cannabis Shop, or Tilray.