State health authorities have ordered that edible products containing cannabidiol, or CBD, must be removed from stores because the hemp-derived product is not a federally approved food additive.

Environmental health inspectors began informing businesses last week that they must remove all foods, tinctures and capsules from their shelves that contain the non-psychoactive chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has determined CBD is an unapproved food additive that federal authorities do not recognize as safe.

The ruling threatens to derail Maine’s fast-growing hemp industry, in which farmers, extraction labs and retailers are investing millions of dollars, at a time when the CBD market is poised for explosive growth. National industry analysts estimate the U.S. market hit $591 million in 2018 and, with new federal legislation making it distinct from marijuana, its cannabis cousin, it could hit $22 billion by 2022, according to the Brightfield Group.

PATIENTS NOT AFFECTED

The increasingly popular CBD – which has made its way into Big Apple gas stations and True Value hardware shops across Maine – will not be disappearing from circulation entirely, however. Inspectors have told business owners they can still sell CBD products that can be smoked, vaped, worn as a patch or applied as a lotion, and all medical marijuana patients can still buy oral CBDs from licensed caregivers or dispensaries.

The DHHS did not respond to a request for information about the new policy on Friday night. It is unclear how many businesses will receive the letter or how many in Maine sell CBD products now to the general public. In response to questions, Assistant Attorney General Deanna White, the state lawyer tasked with investigating the state CBD policy, provided The Press Herald with the memo she sent to state officials who oversee hemp, cannabis and health matters.

Passage of the 2018 Farm Act apparently triggered this change in policy, according to the memo. Its legalization of hemp, the cannabis crop that has become the primary source of CBD, sparked a series of questions within DHHS about its impact on Maine’s growing fast-growing hemp and CBD industry. Upon review, state lawyers concluded that CBD could not be used in mass-market food until Maine’s experimental hemp program gets federal approval.

The departmental action has shocked hemp farmers and CBD retailers who have sunk millions into their business ventures and supply thousands of people with products that consumers believe help them manage anxiety, pain and inflammation, among other discomforts. Some plan to rally at the State Capitol beginning at 9 a.m. on Tuesday in hopes of getting the state to reverse its position or persuade lawmakers to pursue a legislative remedy.

“We just had the carpet pulled out from under us,” said Dawson Julia, the owner of East Coast CBDs in Unity. “Hemp just got legalized nationally and now Maine wants to do a 180 and make it illegal here, when we’ve been doing it with their blessing for two years now? How did CBD suddenly get unsafe? This is ridiculous. This cannot stand. People need to know what the state is up to and demand the state keeps its hands off our CBDs.”

Julia said hemp-derived CBD products account for half of his store’s profits. Some of those who buy are former medical marijuana patients who can’t afford to get their medical card renewed and others are people who would never touch marijuana and simply want over-the-counter holistic relief for anxiety, pain and swelling, or even their dog. Dog biscuits made with CBDs are one of his most popular products, Julia said.

BUSINESSES IN LIMBO

Gary Runnells learned about the CBD prohibition from an apologetic health inspector who gave him the bad news when she came to his Newport store, Endless Herbs, to certify his commercial kitchen. The former truck driver bought the shop last month with plans to make his CBD blends, Pressed Nature Infusions, in the kitchen. He would sell some there and others to shops across Maine and distributors out West.

The state ruling turns Runnells’ dream into a business nightmare. He has sunk tens of thousands of dollars into the store, which he decided to buy because it was in the perfect location for him. His entire production process – from the hemp farms that grow his source plant to the processor who extracts the oil from the plants to the facility where he would mix up his blends and sell them – were all within a 90-minute drive, perfect for the busy 35-year-old father.

And then there are the patients. On Friday, a neighbor who suffers from restless leg syndrome looking for a blend to help ease the discomfort in his legs and quell the irresistible urge to move them when he sleeps. Runnells had 200 bottles of tincture in the back room that others had used to successfully treat the same thing, but the ruling forced him to turn the neighbor away.

According to the state, that man could still purchase CBD products if he attained his medical marijuana card. Under the new version of the medical marijuana law, a doctor can certify a patient for medical marijuana use for any medically beneficial reason, not just the ones on a short of approved conditions. Runnells said there are plenty of people who would use CBD but would never even consider using marijuana, or even getting a medical marijuana card.

And local zoning rules would prohibit him from converting his health food store into a medical marijuana caregiver shop, which would shut him out of that process.

BAD TIMING

Despite the upending of his business plan, Runnells said that he is one of the lucky ones. He believes he can still legally buy out-of-state hemp and blend it in his commercial kitchen and continue to sell the products to out-of-state distributors who supply CBD stores out West. Of course, he’d rather do all of that in Maine, so the jobs and revenue created stayed in state, but he has options.

He worries about the Mainers who have launched large hemp farming operations and opened up hemp-only processing facilities to serve the fast-growing market. In 2016, the first year of Maine’s experimental hemp program, only two farmers signed up to grow hemp and only a quarter acre of licensed hemp was grown. By the end of last year, 82 farmers were participating in the program and about 900 acres were in cultivation.

“Maine has the worst timing in the world on this,” Runnells said. “This is a super hot industry, just exploding across the country. People love using it. It creates job opportunities and a retail markup like you wouldn’t believe that can pump millions into our economy, but Maine is going to kill it. Here we are, ready to pull the big trigger on the hemp revolution, and Maine wants to take away our gun.”

Some people have opened hemp-only processing facilities intended to extract the CBD oils out of the plant in order to minimize the risk of contamination in plants that process both marijuana and hemp. Processing equipment can be very expensive, especially for hemp, because customers often seek solvent-less extraction methods that require the latest and costliest technology.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:18 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2019, to clarify which stores carry hemp products that contain CBD.


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