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How much relaxation can one man handle?

I size myself up as I drive across Ontario’s Northumberland Hills toward my sybaritic destination. From past experience, I know that the bubbling thermal pools and cushion-strewn lounges of Ste. Anne’s Spa are relaxing in the extreme. I also know that aromatherapy massages cause me to lose consciousness within seconds. Now, I’m about to try Ste. Anne’s new “Canna-Massage,” one of the first spa treatments in Canada to promote the use of cannabidiol-infused oil.

Ste. Anne’s 'Relieve CBD Care' line of private-label topical products was introduced so the spa could “get a foot in the door early on,” says owner Jim Corcoran.

In short, I’m wondering if a massage has ever induced a coma.

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Better-known as CBD, cannabidiol joins tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, as an abundant and chemically active cannabinoid compound found in the cannabis plant. THC has psychoactive properties – it’s the stuff that gets you stoned – while CBD is widely purported to induce relaxation and relieve everything from stress, anxiety and insomnia to inflammation and chronic pain when consumed or applied to the skin as a topical product.

With anecdotal and celebrity endorsements flooding in – and with clinical research picking up steam – CBD has been front and centre this year, popping up in a dizzying array of consumer goods: Ice cream, energy drinks, dog treats, bath bombs, all manner of topical and cosmetic products, a line of Willie Nelson-branded coffee beans, the list goes on.

Dozens of spas in cannabis-friendly U.S. states, meanwhile, have rolled out treatments that incorporate oils, lotions, scrubs and even beverages containing CBD. Guests at the Spa at St. Julien, for instance, sip CBD-infused tea as part of the “Ultimate Colorado Bliss CBD Experience,” which is said to “take you step by step into the ultimate state of bliss” via a CBD sugar scrub and massage.

In conjunction with the $155 Canna-Massage, Ste. Anne’s “Relieve CBD Care” line of private-label topical products was introduced on Sept. 1, more than six weeks before CBD (and THC) became legal for recreational use in Canada. “We wanted to get a foot in the door early on because we see cannabis as just one more herb in the kit bag we use to achieve therapeutic results,” Ste. Anne’s owner and general manager Jim Corcoran says. “Topicals are still a grey area in terms of regulation, but our lawyers said it was okay to launch early because the CBD oil we use is hemp-based.”

The new 'Canna-Massage' at Ste. Anne’s Spa is one of the first treatments in Canada to promote the use of CBD-infused oil.

“A grey area” about sums it up. Health Canada defines hemp as cannabis that contains less than 0.3-per-cent THC in its dried form. Owing to this low THC content, topical products based on hemp are, and have always been, legal in Canada. Hemp-based CBD oil is extracted from flowers, leaves and stalks that are cultivated for their higher CBD content, while the hemp oil used for cooking is made from the plant’s seeds and typically contains only trace amounts of CBD. Topicals based on cannabis that’s richer in THC tend to contain the most CBD, and are in the process of being regulated by Health Canada.

If all that sounds rather murky, the therapeutic value of CBD topicals is murkier still. According to Dr. Mark Kirchhof, head of dermatology at the University of Ottawa, “there is insufficient data to recommend these products at this time. My concern is always when profit and revenue are placed in higher priority than validated clinical benefits. Plant-derived topical products have the potential to elicit allergic responses, and there is published and clinical evidence of these responses to cannabis and its derivatives.”

Describing the effectiveness of CBD topicals as “highly variable,” Kirchhof says he has encountered evidence in his clinic of cannabis-derived products being used for eczema, psoriasis and acne-related disorders. “The hope is that with increased interest and funding, well-designed and well-controlled studies will be published in the near future.”

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Feedback from Canna-Massage clients and therapists has been invariably positive, Corcoran says, adding that the massage oil’s low CBD concentration of 0.68 milligrams per millilitre “won’t have anywhere near the same impact as something derived from medicinal cannabis. The key for our guests is the way massage enhances the effects.”

CBD enthusiasts seeking something stronger should check where the compound ranks on product labels before undergoing spa treatments, suggests Dr. Jeanette Jacknin, a California-based dermatologist. “Each person is very different in how they respond to CBD. It does have merits, and these could be enhanced by massage, but you have to be careful about the brand you use.”

Guests at the Spa at St. Julien sip CBD-infused tea as part of the 'Ultimate Colorado Bliss CBD Experience,' which also features a CBD sugar scrub and massage.

St Julien Hotel and Spa

Jacknin recommends the hemp oil made by Northern Ireland’s Sopris Health & Wellness, which contains about 16 milligrams of CBD per millilitre. That’s nearly 24 times the concentration of Ste. Anne’s massage oil.

Corcoran says he looks forward to expanding and fortifying his spa resort’s CBD offerings once cannabis-based topicals have been fully regulated. “As time goes on and there’s more regulation and acceptance, I think the psychoactive elements of cannabis should also be explored. As long as the therapist isn’t forced to go down the road you want to go down, why shouldn’t you have a THC massage? You bring your own bud, we’ll prepare it for you in our apothecary, and then you’ll have the oil to use in a treatment here and to take home.”

For now, however, the Canna-Massage is my only cannabis-derived option at Ste. Anne’s. I’m determined to remain conscious for the entire hour-long treatment. But with birdsong-backed classical guitar filling the serene treatment room, and with my therapist’s skilled hands kneading the chamomile- and lavender-scented oils and salves into my blanket-swaddled form, this is easier vowed than done.

By the time I’m asked to roll onto my back, it’s clear that assessing the individual components of a massage, while being treated to a superb massage, is challenging. Any new pleasure gets lost in the pleasure. I do feel a kind of warm, comforting heaviness settle over me just before the treatment ends, but that may well have been caused by the heavy electric blanket keeping me warm and comfortable.

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Do the CBD oils and salves achieve anything that other massage oils and salves do not? I can’t honestly say. But I will say this: I tailgated not a single vehicle as I drive home along Highway 401.

The writer was a guest of Ste. Anne’s Spa. It did not review or approve this article.

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