SCHENECTADY — As the number of CBD products and CBD retailers grows, seemingly by the hour, a local entrepreneur is betting on the therapeutic hemp extract as a winning business venture.
Donald Andrews, who also owns smoke/vape shops in Scotia and Albany, cut the ribbon on Upstate CBD last Thursday.
Andrews said he’s aware of all the competition facing him, as close as the jewelry store across Upper Union Street. The way he’ll succeed, he said, is by selling only laboratory-certified products and by staffing the store with people knowledgeable in CBD. “That’s what sets us apart from other places,” he said. “We have a holistic health practitioner on site.”
The sudden flood of CBD products on the market in the last year comes courtesy of relaxed federal regulations, chiefly the 2018 federal farm bill, which formally removed industrial hemp from the Schedule I list of illegal drugs (where hemp's cousin, marijuana, remains).
CBD — cannabidiol — is just one of more than 100 active cannabinoid substances in the hemp plant, but it has been singled out for credit in helping people with complaints ranging from pain and anxiety to insomnia and epilepsy.
It’s available in everything from to beer (Two Flowers IPA) to chocolate (Good Vibes) to canine treats (Dope Dog) to sex lubricant (Wet Hemptation) to male hygiene products (Hemp Bombs Beard Balm).
Industrial hemp and marijuana are closely related plants. But hemp and the CBD products derived from it must contain less than 0.3 percent THC — tetrahydrocannabinol, the cannabinoid that causes marijuana’s intoxicating effect.
Medical marijuana by contrast generally contains much more THC, and marijuana cultivated for recreational consumption often has even higher THC levels.
So, as long as a CBD product contains less than 0.3 percent THC, it is not considered marijuana, and it’s legal.
Or illegal, depending on where you are and the disposition of the local authorities — CBD products are still being seized in some jurisdictions, thanks to a contradictory mishmash of rules and laws at various local, state and federal levels.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says CBD products cannot be marketed as a dietary supplements, or added to food or drink intended for interstate transport. However, that may soon change: The FDA held a hearing May 31 and continues to gather comment and data through July 16 as it attempts to provide clarity on CBD regulations.
New York state, by contrast, requires that CBD products intended for consumption be treated as dietary supplements. While the Department of Agriculture and Markets oversees the state’s hemp research program, there’s little regulation on what can be sold and by whom.
New York’s medical marijuana program operates under a markedly stricter framework. It is overseen by the state Department of Health and was rolled out in 2016 with a set of regulations that was criticized as too restrictive.
The rules were later loosened, but some in the health care and medical marijuana industries still consider these regulations to be too limiting, and had hoped — in vain — that the Legislature would pass a bill expanding the program this year.
As of June 18, out of nearly 20 million New York state residents, there were just 2,379 health care providers registered to certify patients to buy medical marijuana products and only 102,373 certified patients.
RANGE OF PRODUCTS
With his new Upstate CBD shop, Andrews sidesteps the regulatory restrictions on the medical marijuana dispensaries in New York state and offers products with many of the same effects.
The 31-year-old Schenectady native sells edible, smokeable, vapable, topical and sublingual merchandise. Prices vary greatly based on size and potency: A small package of gummies costs as little as $10. The largest vial of the most concentrated tincture runs $390.
The smokable hemp on his shelves — the strongest and most popular is an Oregon variety named “Trump” — is something else you won't find at a dispensary: The state forbids sale of smokable medical marijuana.
Anecdotal evidence widely indicates that cannabinoids — whether purchased online or at a medical dispensary or a CBD shop or online, or even illegally from a street dealer — help many people to some degree with some medical complaints. But not everyone. “CBD doesn’t always work for everybody,” Anderson said. “Everybody’s different.”
Meanwhile, the various means of delivery — smoking a pipe, rubbing on a balm, chewing a gumdrop, dripping a tincture under the tongue — work with different potency and speed.
“They each have their own benefits,” said Renata Filiaci, a holistic health practitioner who’ll soon start full-time at Upstate CBD. “If you’re feeling stressed in the moment, smoking is the best route. But if you feel like you need to promote something that is further down the line, consistency is key. Tinctures or edibles would be your best route.”
One of Anderson’s selling points for his new store is a knowledgeable staff that can provide guidance through all the variables, and help new customers reach a starting point or repeat customers fine-tune their results.
Watching this sudden CBD boom is the medical marijuana industry in New York, which has invested several years and millions of dollars in setting up state-of-the-art production facilities and dispensaries, only to see that not everyone who wants their products can get certified to buy them, not everyone who's certified can reach a dispensary, and not everyone who gets to a dispensary will find what they want, such as smokable flower.
Other states allow a wider range of medical marijuana products and extracts to be sold for a wider range of maladies.
One of the three Capital Region marijuana dispensaries is operated in Albany by Illinois-based PharmaCann. Its New York/Pennsylvania district manager, Kevin Harbison, said Friday the company was disappointed to see this legislative session end without action.
However, he said, “We are encouraged that there’s a lot of talk and a lot of headway to expand the medical marijuana program.”
Harbison said PharmaCann and other medical marijuana providers authorized to operate in New York have their products rigorously tested for contamination at the state's Wadsworth Lab in Albany, and said if there’s a criticism of over-the-counter CBD products, it’s that not all of them are similarly tested.
The hemp plant will readily suck up contaminants from the soil where it grows, he said, and traces of heavy metals have been found in less-reputable CBD products.
Given the varying levels of regulatory oversight and testing within the CBD industry, Harbison suggests patients build a working relationship with their CBD supplier, rather than buying at random.
Another medical marijuana company in the Capital Region is Vireo Health New York, which operates a dispensary in Albany and a cultivation/production facility near Gloversville.
Vireo's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Stephen Dahmer said there are reputable CBD companies. The potential advantage of medical marijuana is something called the entourage effect — THC joining with CBD to provide greater benefit to the patient than either of the cannabinoids might have alone.
CBD products can't offer that — they contain only traces of THC, or none at all.
But again, actual mileage may vary: THC won’t make everyone feel better.
“We’re treating many illnesses, each person is incredibly different,” Dahmer said.
Some call New York’s rules restrictive, he said, but “I’m a big fan of the New York program. We’ve achieved great results with our patients.”
Dahmer said he hopes the commercial hype and regulatory attention surrounding CBD will lead to a better understanding of the potential benefits of cannabinoids through more and better research.
On that point, he said, “All of us agree.”