Will you Test Positive for Cannabis if you Use Legal CBD?

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With legal CBD now widely available throughout the country, and more people than ever taking advantage of its therapeutic properties, users of CBD are facing a disturbing concern. Many drug tests are unable to tell the difference between cannabis and legal CBD.

CBD is used largely as a therapeutic agent, providing users with some healing properties without the intoxicating effects of cannabis. It is commonly used for pain relief and anxiety relief, and there is some research showing that it can be effective as a treatment for epilepsy and for certain neurodegenerative disorders. The National Cancer Institute also says that CBD may be useful in alleviating some of the difficult side effects of cancer treatments.

While CBD is therapeutic and not intoxicating, current drug testing has not yet gotten up to speed, and many tests cannot tell the difference between CBD and THC. This has already caused widespread problems and false positives for people who are subject to drug testing. As a result, those who are subject to drug tests for probation, for employment, for child custody cases or any number of other reasons, may – and often are – incorrectly flagged for marijuana use.

The Three Main Reasons for False Positives Are:

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  1. Regulation of CBD is still evolving. Legal CBD is allowed to contain less than 0.3 percent THC – a level which is not intoxicating. However, many CBD products remain unregulated and may contain more than the legal limit of THC, according to testing done by the FDA.
  2. Conventional drug testing for cannabis often triggers a false positive. A 2012 study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology showed that common drug testing can often mistake CBD for THC.
  3. Those drug tests are unable to determine the level of intoxication – that is, they can only tell whether or not you have used cannabis in the last few days. It can’t tell the difference between someone who is impaired, and someone who only used it a few days ago. It’s like taking a breathalyzer test for alcohol and getting flagged because you had half a beer with dinner two days ago. As a result, the small levels of THC which is legally contained in CBD products may still yield a false positive.
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A study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology has shown that one of the most common drug testing methods can mistake the presence of CBD for THC; some individuals who have been inaccurately tested have filed suit successfully based on that report. Numerous court cases have been brought against parolees, in family court or with employer testing, and in many cases, if that specific drug testing method has been used, prosecutors have often dropped the charges.

The stakes are high. A drug test giving a false positive after CBD usage could result in the loss of parental rights, job loss, or prison.

The test in question involves a common chemical analysis device called a gas-chromatography mass-spectrometer machine. These devices require the lab to add a chemical to a sample to identify trace amounts of compounds.

A variety of agents can be used, but a common agent is trifluoroacetic anhydride (TFAA), which according to the 2012 Journal of Analytical Toxicology article, cannot determine the difference between CBD and THC. For those who may have been falsely accused of cannabis use as a result of a drug test, this is important information for you and your attorney to know, and it may cast a shadow of doubt over the results and overturn a negative decision.

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Because CBD is still only recently legal, regulation has so far been minimal, outside of legal guidance about the definition (CBD is allowed to contain only 0.3 percent THC). Some CBD products on the market however, do exceed that legal limit, according to several FDA warning letters issued in 2019, so one course of action is to be sure to purchase your CBD products from a reliable source, and not a local shop making it in a back room with no oversight and questionable chemistry.

You can start by ensuring your CBD provider is reputable and has not been the recipient of an FDA warning letter. Some of the CBD products which are common, reputable, and have not received such letters include California Grown CBD products, Freshleaf, and cbdMD products, available from reputable and nationally recognized providers such as NugRepublic.

More recently a team from Johns Hopkins Medicine conducted a 2019 study in which individuals were administered CBD orally and with a vaporizer, as well as inhaled vaporized CBD-dominant cannabis with 0.39 percent THC. While those receiving pure CBD did not test positive on a standard urine test for cannabis, 2 of 6 participants tested positive for cannabis after receiving the CBD-d0minant cannabis vapor.

According to the researchers, the cannabis used in the study was similar to legal CBD or help products – meaning that those who are subject to drug testing need to understand that even very small amounts of THC in a CBD product – only slightly above the 0.3 percent legal limit — can trigger a positive result for cannabis.

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Another issue is that those who use legal CBD usually don’t just use them one time. And because THC can build up in a person’s system with repeated use, chances of a positive result can still occur even when only trace amounts of THC are present in legal CBD products.

Here’s the difference: Full-spectrum CBD extract contains all of the compounds which occur naturally in the plant itself, which may include trace amounts of THC. Broad spectrum also contains all compounds found in the plant, but the THC has been removed, and is therefore less likely to contain THC than the full spectrum variety. CBD isolate however, is pure CBD, with no additional compounds from the plant from which it was extracted.

The Final Word

The one sure way to avoid confusion and false positives is to pay attention to the type of CBD extract you are buying. There are three types of CBD – full spectrum, broad spectrum, and isolate. Pure CBD isolate contains zero percent THC, so won’t be subject to the same possibility of false positive as the varieties which contain the legal 0.3 percent limit.

Drug testing and government regulation still must catch up to the reality of legal CBD, and it must do so quickly to avoid false positives and unjust legal actions taken as a result of legal CBD use.

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