Many Massachusetts retailers and farmers say a recent state policy statement on CBD is bad for business.
The policy, issued in June, bans the sale of some hemp products, including foods made with hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD). And this has left many businesses that hoped to tap into the lucrative CBD industry in limbo.
It’s not hard to find CBD across Massachusetts. Just walk into Cornucopia Natural Wellness Market in Northampton on Main Street. It’s got vegetables, square-shaped herbal soaps and plenty of kombucha. And lots of CBD.
“We had a foot and a half maybe of product and it’s expanded into one shelf, two shelves, three shelves, now five shelves; it’s like 25 feet of CBD. And it’s extremely popular,” says Nate Clifford, who owns the store with his wife.
He sells CBD drops, gummies and even honey and olive oil.
CBD has gotten a lot of hype. It’s often promoted as a way to relieve anxiety, pain and other ailments, although the research hasn’t quite caught up with these claims.
Clifford says CBD products, including lotions and balms, account for $200,000 a year in net sales. He thought he had a pretty good thing going.
That is, until he received a letter from Northampton’s Public Health Department, which read, in part:
At this time we are asking you to voluntarily take all CBD infused food products off your shelf as state and federal regulations are still being created to ensure safety to consumers.
The letter was sent to all food and retail establishments in Northampton. But Clifford doesn’t see why officials are coming down on CBD.
The CBD he sells comes from hemp, which has very low levels (no more than 0.3%) of THC — the psychoactive part of marijuana. Meanwhile, marijuana with its higher levels of THC, is legal to be sold at licensed retailers in Massachusetts.
Clifford says he’ll stop making CBD-infused chocolates, which was sold at a stand outside his store. But as for the rest of the CBD products he carries?
“We’re expected to stand up to the ‘man’ here,” he says. “This is Northampton. There’s a protest over something almost every week. And, you know, honestly if I pull products before I really absolutely have to, a lot of my customers will come in here and be like, ‘You bowed down to the man.’ So we carry these things because people want them and because they’re doing therapeutic things for folks. We intend to keep providing those things for them until I have a really clear reason not to.”
Just across Main Street there’s a store called Shop Therapy. It’s like an explosion of tie-dye when you walk in. And they’ve taken a different approach to their CBD products.
“Oh, we’re having a fire sale on it. I mean, we’re not going to be able to sell it anymore,” assistant store manager Donovan Bartish says. “At this point, all we’re trying to do is at least get some of our money back on our investment we’ve made with this stuff.”
According to Bartish, the store has spent thousands on CBD cake pops, frog-shaped gummies and other edibles. Their selection is now plastered with neon-colored “buy one, get one free” signs.
Bartish says the ban on CBD edibles goes too far and hurts local businesses.
“Personally I think it’s asinine because I’ve not heard of a single instance of it hurting anyone at all. Not one,” Bartish says.
But federal regulators say many health claims about CBD are unproven and they want more research on it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even issued warning letters to several companies about their claims — including Wakefield-based Curaleaf.
Just up Main Street in Northampton’s municipal building is the person in charge of enforcing the CBD food ban there.
“CBD has taken us by surprise,” public health director Merridith O’Leary says. “My inspectors were coming to me saying that our stores, our retail stores, were saturated with CBD products, and I really didn’t even know what CBD was.”
O’Leary is the one who issued the letter to businesses about CBD. She says she looked into CBD and talked to different agencies about it. After the state put out its policy — which leaves enforcement up to local health boards — O’Leary issued the letter to Northampton businesses.
“When my inspectors go out and do their regular inspections, we’re not going to be looking for it. We’re not going to be targeting anyone,” O’Leary says. “When they’re going out to do their regular food inspections, if they see that CBD-infused food products are being sold we’re going to ask them again to voluntarily take them off the shelf.”
Cities and towns across Massachusetts are taking different approaches. Some, like Northampton, have issued warning letters. Some have not. Some are giving businesses until next year to sell off their products. Others appear to have no real enforcement at all.
“That makes for a different regulatory environment, it makes for a very difficult environment in which to grow a business. So a lot of things are sort of still up in the air,” says Julia Agron, an Amherst hemp farmer with the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association.
There may be some legislative relief in sight at the state level. A bill filed last month would legalize CBD products made from hemp.
Agron, who’s also part of a newly formed group called the Massachusetts Hemp Coalition, says a legislative solution can’t come soon enough.
“Farming is seasonal and farmers can’t necessarily wait til October for these things to be resolved if they’re hoping to recoup the money they’ve already spent putting seeds in the ground and growing plants,” Agron says. “I hope they really take this up and move it forward.”
Legislation could also provide more clarity for cities and towns tasked with enforcement.
In the meantime, the FDA is still evaluating how it might regulate CBD. So its stance could change. If that happens, the state says it would review its policy.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the value of CBD sales at Cornucopia Natural Wellness Market. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.