Time and research. That is what is needed for more definitive answers about cannabidiol’s medicinal value. But there is no question that this particular non-psychoactive chemical compound of the hemp plant — CBD as it is known — is the foundation of a blossoming business in Vermont, one that tugs on a variety of social threads, from agriculture, to health care, to pot policy.
‘My friend told me to try this …’
In the wellness department at Natural Provisions Market in Williston, CBD oils, sprays, capsules and balms have been the fastest growing product segment over the past year, department manager Hollis Clark said.
“We sell a bunch of it. We can’t even keep it in stock. It comes in and goes out,” she said.
Natural Provisions began stocking CBD products about 10 months ago from two brands. Selection has now expanded to include seven brands, two of which are based in Vermont.
Hollis attributes the growth in sales to customers of all ages having success with the products relieving maladies like stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and pain, and evangelizing to friends and family members.
“I think word of mouth is the biggest thing,” she said. “People come in and say, ‘my friend told me to try this’ … I have repeat customers tell me that it’s helping them. They come in and get the same thing they got the last time.”
‘I don’t see any downside”
The breakthrough for CBD as a medicine came in 2013 when a Colorado couple that had exhausted all other treatments for their young daughter’s seizures saw a dramatic decline in seizures with CBD treatment.
The Colorado Epilepsy Foundation tepidly endorsed CBD as a treatment a year later, saying it “should be viewed as a last resort to be considered if established epilepsy medication regimens are unsuccessful.”
Since then, a variety of studies in several countries have linked CBD treatment with reduction in pain, inflammation, anxiety and depression, among other conditions. But federal-level research that would lead to acceptance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been hamstrung by a federal ban on hemp cultivation.
That may soon change. On Monday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell announced plans to introduce “the Hemp Farming Act of 2018.” In a press release, McConnell said the bill will “legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances.”
But in the current absence of conclusive scientific evidence, the medical community remains skeptical, said Andy Haig, who practices rehabilitative medicine out of the Kismet building on Blair Park Road in Williston.
“Most doctors are not dogmatically opposed to marijuana derivatives, but we are skeptical of any medicine for pain,” said Haig, noting that patients often report improved symptoms after taking a substance they believe to be medicinal — the so-called placebo effect. “There is so little data (on CBD), so a lot of doctors pull back and say, ‘I don’t know yet.’”
Haig’s downstairs neighbor in the Kismet building, Sharon Gutwin of RehabGYM, is also looking forward to more research. But, she said, “you’ve got to start somewhere.”
“I feel like enough is known, there’s enough research available, that it’s time to introduce this as an option,” she said. “I don’t see any downside.”
Gutwin began stocking CBD oils that are taken orally and topical balms in January. She has been promoting them as a pain and inflammation relief alternative to prescription medicines.
“Right now, options for pain control are limited, and pharmaceuticals can kill you if you get addicted,” she said. “(CBD) shows a lot of potential.”
Gutwin’s only concern, other than the price of CBD products — a one-month supply of oil retails for $95 at RehabGYM— is the lack of dosage guidance.
‘Hope and excitement’
David Cranmer, a patient advocate with the National Cancer Institute and president of the Vermont Cancer Survivor Network, said the possibility of CBD treatments for pain and nausea caused by cancer treatments has begun to be discussed among cancer patients. But more education is needed so that CBD treatments don’t get conflated with medical marijuana.
“Once you say cannabis, people think that you have to be smoking a joint, and that’s not true,” Cranmer said. “We are still looking for more information and for the industry to get settled out.
“I encourage the CBD folks to reach out to cancer support groups,” he continued. “It is eye-opening, what they have to offer.”
A business association formed in 2016 called the Vermont Cannabis Association is leading efforts to educate consumers and expand the CBD market. Starting on April 20 (yes, 4/20 — a code term in marijuana culture that symbolizes smoking pot), the association presents “Vermont Cannabis Week.”
Events will include a CBD round-table discussion the evening of April 26 at Arts Riot in Burlington.
Ashley Reynolds, whose Elmore Mountain Therapeutics are among the CBD products for sale at both Natural Provisions and RehabGYM, will be on the panel.
Reynolds has been immersed in CBD advocacy and entrepreneurship since the launch of her company last May. Elmore Mountain Therapeutics started as a personal search for postpartum depression treatment that led to distribution of CBD products to friends and family and now has become one of the primary CBD brands in Vermont.
Nearing the company’s one-year anniversary, Elmore Mountain is transitioning to Vermont grown hemp after sourcing from Colorado in its initial year.
“That was always our goal as native Vermonters,” Reynolds said, noting that growing hemp became legal in Vermont in 2013. “We want to work with the folks who do the hard work of growing … This industry is a great opportunity on so many levels, and we’re trying to do it the right way, supporting local retailers and local farmers.”
Possession of marijuana is scheduled to be legal in Vermont starting July 1. But the legalization of pot retail stores like those that operate in Colorado and Washington remains too high a legislative hurdle for Vermont politicians. Some cannabis entrepreneurs awaiting a legal pot market have focused their energies on CBD sales for the time being, Reynolds said.
Elmore Mountain Therapeutics, however, has no intention to become a marijuana company.
Reynolds expects more advocacy and anecdotal treatment success stories will help consumers understand the difference between marijuana, with its patchwork of state-based legalization laws, and CBD, which is legal to buy, sell and consume.
Advances in plant breeding to separate CBD from its psychoactive sibling, THC, also bodes well for the future of industry.
“Up until recently, THC was really taking the spotlight. Most scientist were studying the effects of THC, and CBD was overlooked for a long time,” Reynolds said. “But people are starting to pay attention … People feel a sense of hope and a sense of excitement for Vermont with this industry.”