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HAZY HEMP LAWS: Future of CBD-infused products in NC is uncertain

Grow NC’s mission is to affect change where they can, through education and tolerance.

When it comes to cannabis culture, most of North Carolina lags a few years behind more progressive states like Colorado or California (except, of course, for Asheville). That hasn’t stopped products containing CBD from being sold in our state—lotions, oils, gummy bears, and outright flowers can be bought, entirely legal, from local retailers. Recent enforcement actions by our state’s Department of Consumer Protection has led to some retailers pulling certain products from shelves.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is a naturally occurring compound that can be derived from hemp—a close cousin of marijuana. It is not psychoactive and will not produce the euphoric “high” marijuana is typically associated with. Users of the product claim it helps relieve chronic pain, reduces anxiety, and helps with insomnia.

CBD is also the active ingredient in Epidiolex, a drug used to treat patients with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. It is this fact which has caused the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to issue a letter last week to retailers selling CBD. It states since CBD is the active ingredient in an FDA-approved drug, it is “currently excluded from being a dietary supplement.” CBD products which are “marketed with claims to prevent, mitigate, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases . . . indicate the products are intended for use as drugs.” It is a violation of federal, and therefore state, law to sell new drugs without FDA approval.

The most damning clause, as far as local retailers are concerned, is the one which states it is prohibited to sell any food item “to which has been added a substance which is an active ingredient in a drug product.”

Gus Villapiano is a co-owner of Grow NC, a new local coffee shop and gathering space in Chandler’s Wharf. Up until recently, they sold coffee which could be sweetened with CBD via a sweetener infused with CBD. Yet, they have pulled it in advance of enforcement actions.

“It’s taking a big chunk out of what we do,” Villapiano says, adding he is fully invested in this business and has a family to think of. Villapiano is working hard to stay legal. As a responsible business owner, he wants to make sure he abides within the law. But trying to keep track of what is and isn’t legal is difficult when the law is constantly in flux. “It’s like trying to set up a tent in a hurricane,” he says.

Currently, they are working on developing single-serving sized packages of CBD oil, which customers could add to their beverages if they so choose. Pure CBD oil remains legal, as it falls outside of what has been legislated. According to a blog posted last year on a UNC School of Government Criminal Law site, the state definition of marijuana excludes industrial hemp, which is defined as all parts of the cannabis plant grown by a licensed grower with less than 0.3 percent THC content.

Many CBD supplements can be bought off the Internet or in a business which sells them as a side hustle, like a gas station; many of these retailers may source their product from oversea countries like China, as practically no regulation exists. In these cases, Villapiano says, it’s hard to ensure customers are getting a high-quality product—or even CBD. When someone has a bad experience with a product claiming to be CBD, it can give the real thing a bad name.

Villapiano has been working with the NC Hemp Pilot Program, which began after Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 2014. The act allowed certain research institutions (of which NC State is one) and state departments of agriculture to grow industrial hemp; the crops of license-holding farmers, many of whom grew tobacco in the past, are carefully monitored and sampled to make sure THC content stays below the legal limit, else the crop is destroyed. Villapiano would like to see local farmers and retailers working together, to ensure people who need CBD for medical purposes have access to the best product available.

Industrial hemp has many uses outside of CBD. Readers may be familiar with its historical practicalities, like making naval rope or sails (the word “canvas” is actually derived from cannabis, according to the OED), or the role it can play in making many textiles, like clothing, sheets and shoes. Hemp also can be used to make building products. In 2010 a home was built in Asheville, which used “hempcrete” (a concrete-like material made from four parts hemp, one part lime and one part water) as its primary building material, and thereby saved greatly on heating and cooling costs. Hemp can also make a nutritious food to be eaten by people and animals.

Incredibly, local marathon athlete and amputee Marc Dunshee uses a prosthetic designed by local prosthetic technician Kyle Trivisonno made from a hemp fiberglass-like material. With over 2,000 miles logged on the prosthesis already, the designer claims hemp is stronger and more impact-resistant than carbon fiber.

For now, Villapiano says he will continue with outreach and education about the product. It’s an uphill battle.

“Although the product has been legal in California and Colorado for 10 years, we’re still fighting fifty years of propaganda and misinformation,” he notes.

Grow NC’s mission is to affect change where they can, through education and tolerance. They’re not trying to force opinions on anyone; all they ask is people keep an open mind.

“I want people to start asking questions,” he urges. “Why is [the use of CBD and related products] wrong? Because for a lot of people, it’s right.”

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