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Cannabidiol (CBD) oil-infused gummy bears, lattes, and other foods, drinks, and dietary supplements are selling quickly even though the U.S. government says they're illegal and local authorities have forced some retailers to pull products. The confusion has the nation's two largest states and others moving to legalize the cannabis compound that many see as beneficial to their health.

Lawmakers in Texas and California are often in opposition, but they're both pushing bipartisan legislation to sidestep federal law and allow sales of the compound found in hemp and marijuana. Republicans and Democrats in Congress also are urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change its stance.

The FDA announced April 2, 2019, that it will hold a public hearing in May to gather more information.

Resolving the confusion can't come quick enough for Jonathan Eppers, who makes Vybes, a popular CBD-oil-infused beverage. California health inspectors raided his Los Angeles warehouse in January 2019 and impounded $100,000 worth of the drink.

Eppers said about 50 California retailers have since dropped his product and he's moved production to Texas. He estimates lost sales, legal costs, and relocation expenses have cost him at least $500,000.

“What is going on is unbelievable and asinine,” Eppers said. “They put us in this state of limbo that's costing us.”

What is going on is unbelievable and asinine. They put us in this state of limbo that's costing us. Click To Tweet

Why is CBD Under Such Scrutiny?

Eppers and CBD fans are mystified by the legal insecurity. After all, they say, retailers in California and nine other states that have broadly legalized marijuana sell edibles and other products that get people high, though marijuana is illegal under federal law. U.S. officials generally have taken a hands-off approach in states where cannabis is legal.

The FDA has oversight of CBD because it is the active ingredient in Epidiolex, an approved prescription drug to treat two rare seizure disorders. The agency says CBD can't be added to food or sold as a dietary supplement because officials haven't determined if it's safe or effective for other conditions.

Gus Dabais, owner of Sidewalk Wellness in San Francisco, had city officials “red tag” his cannabidiol (CBD) products. While it doesn't have THC's intoxicating properties, CBD remains in legal limbo as local authorities crack down on CBD-infused foods and products. At the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that it has jurisdiction to regulate CBD. (The Associated Press/Eric Risberg)

Outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Congress in late March 2019 that enforcement is being limited to sellers who make false health claims. He said the agency recently sent warning letters to three companies in Florida, New Jersey, and Washington touting CBD as a treatment for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, fibromyalgia, and drug addiction.

“But there are products on the market right now that, given our enforcement priorities and our limited resources, we haven't taken action against,” he said.

CBD is a non-intoxicating molecule found in hemp and marijuana. Both are cannabis plants, but only marijuana has enough of the compound THC to get users high.

CBD oil is extracted when the plant is processed. While hemp derivatives are essentially THC-free, CBD oil from marijuana may have very little or enough THC to produce a high.

CBD's Health Benefits Touted

Sellers and users say CBD helps with pain, anxiety, and inflammation, though limited scientific research supports those claims. It's turning up in lotions, cosmetics, soaps, diet pills, juices, cocktails, candies, and drinks.

State and local officials are taking nearly all of the enforcement actions against CBD. Health officials in California, which has the nation's largest legal marijuana marketplace, warned retailers in summer 2018 that anything edible containing CBD is illegal until lawmakers or regulators say otherwise.

The warning was largely ignored until early 2019, when state and local health officials began forcing some small businesses to pull products after receiving complaints.

San Francisco health officials recently barred two small operators from selling CBD-infused food and drink, while authorities in rural Grass Valley, which is 140 miles, or 308 kilometers to the northeast, did the same to a small, cooperatively owned grocery store.

“It caught us way off guard,” said Gus Dabais, owner of Sidewalk Wellness, one of the stores targeted.

The San Francisco Health Department sent warning letters to 1,900 businesses last year, spokeswoman Veronica Vien said. She said inspectors are not looking for CBD but responding to complaints.

She said that's how they ended up “red tagging” products at Dabais' business and Steap Tea Bar, a popular Chinatown shop that sold CBD-infused boba, or bubble tea.

Similar scenarios are playing out in Ohio, where authorities in January 2019 ordered a Cincinnati grocery store to remove CBD from two outlets. The following month, New York City health inspectors removed CBD products from a number of restaurants. Police in March 2019 raided two Fort Worth, Texas, retailers and seized CBD products after the Tarrant County district attorney declared the compound illegal.

States Move to Legalize CBD

In Texas, one of a handful of states that outlaws all forms of marijuana, lawmakers are pushing a measure that would legalize hemp oil-infused edibles. It sailed through its first committee in the House in early April 2019.

In California, a similar CBD measure has moved on to the full Assembly.

“A number of people have been using it for years, and you can find it on retail shelves all over the place, but now people are surprised to find it's against the law,” said Democratic Assembly member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, who introduced the measure. “What this bill will do is clear up the confusion.”

She said the legislation would stop state and local enforcement of the FDA's ban and hopes it becomes law by August 2019.

“This would lift a legal cloud from a legitimate California business,” said Jim Gross of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, an industry association.

A growing number of federal lawmakers, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, are urging the FDA to approve CBD. They backed a measure taking hemp off the U.S. government's list of banned substances.

“Hemp is a versatile crop with many uses and applications,” McConnell and Wyden wrote to the FDA in February 2019. “We are hopeful that by working with you on the implementation of our legislation, we can help ensure that hemp can be a new cash crop for farmers across the country.”


— Paul Elias

Featured Image:  Gus Dabais stands by shelves of cannabidiol (CBD) products he sells in Sidewalk Wellness, his store in San Francisco. Local regulators have stopped him from selling his products, and he'll have to wait as lawmakers in Sacramento, the capital, are considering a bill to legalize the sale of CBD in California, where adult-use marijuana is legal. (The Associated Press/Eric Risberg)

 

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