Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series on CBD products.

In the last 18 months, at least nine shops advertising a new solution for pain relief, inflammation, anxiety, depression, insomnia, nausea, dry skin and a slew of other conditions have popped up in virtually every corner of Cobb County.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, products have hit shelves from Austell to Kennesaw, some smoke shops and convenience stores have rebranded to include “CBD” in their names and at least three more franchises are on the way, business owners say.

WHAT IS CBD?

CBD is extracted from hemp, a type of the cannabis sativa plant, which also produces marijuana. While marijuana commonly contains up to a 15% concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gets users high, the federal government defines hemp as a plant containing no more than 0.3% THC.

That content is just enough to cause a reaction in the body that business owners and customers alike say helps relieve inflammation and chronic pain, as well as promote relaxation and healthy sleep. Federal officials say CBD does not give users a high.

“I swear every single day, I have somebody come in and say they’ve had relief from something new,” said Thomas Bearden, who at 22 owns a franchise of CBD American Shaman. The MDJ visited Bearden’s shop off Johnson Ferry Road, just north of Lassiter Road, in August. Bearden later contacted the paper and said he was unable to renegotiate a lease there and moved his store to Doraville.

Bearden was a traveling vacuum salesman and medical marijuana patient in Oregon, where marijuana is legal for both recreational and medical use, before he came to Georgia and opened his own American Shaman franchise.

In Oregon, he used medical marijuana for anxiety, among other things, and it helped him to relax, allowing him to accomplish normal, day-to-day tasks he couldn’t before, he said. So when he had the chance to start a business of his own and teach people about the potential benefits of the cannabis plant, he said he was all in.

Bearden said buyers of his shop’s CBD products have reported the same relief he’d had from medical marijuana. But, he says he’s careful to separate his cannabis-derived products from any reference to the politics surrounding marijuana in his marketing.

He also says the stigma surrounding cannabidiols is solely because the same plant species that produces those products also produces marijuana and THC.

Bearden said he’d been interested in the cannabis industry and had been researching the products and their potential benefits on his own for years before he became a franchise owner. His Cobb store looked like a lounge, with comfortable couches and chairs surrounded by mounted shelves of CBD oils, candies, and even pet treats. The store was accented with Earth tones — brown, green and tan. Bearden said that’s by design, and his new shop mirrors the old.

In August, his American Staffordshire Terrier-mix, who he said enjoys a daily CBD treat, milled about the store, stopping to chew on her bone between sniffing customers’ feet and plopping down in her bed behind the register. Soft instrumental music played in the background and Bearden offered customers samples of a strawberry-banana-flavored water-soluble product on a small spoon or mixed into coffee.

He said the U.S. culture surrounding cannabis has been misinformed for decades.

“Everything in high school, all the health books and all that, it was all misleading,” Bearden said, preparing a coffee and stirring in 0.5 ml of CBD.

He added, however, he is careful not to make sweeping claims. The product’s results should do the talking, and “I’m not a medical professional,” Bearden said.

WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?

While it’s unclear when CBD products specifically became legal, they were taken off the Controlled Substances Act by the 2018 Federal Farm Bill in December 2018, and since then, interest and marketing in CBD has “exploded,” according to Jason Saliba, deputy chief assistant district attorney with the Cobb District Attorney’s Office. Saliba supervises prosecutors for an organized crime task force in the county.

But, just because the products are legal to buy and use, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe, he said.

Saliba called the CBD industry the “Wild West,” and said because of the lack of buy-in from agencies like the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as the medical community, CBD products are still not being closely regulated and consumers should be careful about where they’re getting them.

“I think part of the problem is a lot of the people in the shops. I don’t think they know what they’re selling. CBD is a big deal in health media, and on the internet it’ll solve anything from lack of sleep to God knows what,” Saliba said. “My question would be, ‘Where are they sourcing that from and do they have any clue what’s in it?’”

Other concerns for local law enforcement and judiciary include whether CBD products will register on a drug test. Some CBD shops in Cobb include a disclaimer on their website that warns they cannot guarantee CBD users won’t fail a drug test.

Vic Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and former Cobb District Attorney, echoed Saliba, saying there have been reports of false advertising.

Reynolds said when law enforcement offices receive complaints of adverse reactions or suspicious activity at a store selling CBD products, especially in the form of vaping devices, they sometimes find THC or synthetic products disguised as CBD.

The takeaway, he said, is if you’re going to buy CBD products, buy them from a reputable establishment, not a gas station or in a person-to-person sale.

“If you go in some convenience store … and you buy a loaf of bread, you buy a jar of mayonnaise and you buy CBD oil, you probably need to be careful of it,” Reynolds said.

The GBI director also acknowledged hemp’s legalization has complicated police work. So far, he said there’s no test that police can administer in the field to accurately assess if what appears to be marijuana is indeed the illegal drug or hemp.

In August, Cobb police and prosecutors said they would not pursue possession cases for less than an ounce of marijuana since Gov. Brian Kemp’s signing of the Georgia Hemp Farming Act in May made industrial hemp production — and therefore, its possession — legal.

In addition to Cobb law enforcement, prosecutors in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties also declared in August that they wouldn’t pursue small-level marijuana possession cases until a solution is found.

“We’re all kind of in a learning process. We’re in the middle of this situation with hemp, where the lab is struggling a little bit to find the appropriate test that our scientists can get on the stand and testify are valid scientific methods. We feel better about where we’re at today than where we were,” Reynolds said. “I think if we don’t find it by Jan. 1, and I’m not extremely confident we will, I am confident that the Legislature will deal with this issue quickly.”

And while the decisions of law enforcement may come as a relief to prospective hemp farmers and CBD entrepreneurs, obstacles remain.

THE FUTURE OF HEMP AND CBD

Though the production and sale of hemp is legal in the state, only licensed growers are permitted to farm the crop. Georgia has not established a licensing process for farmers, according to Gary Black, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Black told the MDJ the state must submit a plan for licensing its hemp farmers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which it has done. He said the comment period on the state’s plans ended in August and some of those comments were worth considering.

Incorporating the comments into the rules delays the approval process for another 30 days at least, and if more comments worth considering crop up on the updated rules, there will be more delays, Black said.

“I don’t think it’s a very wise process. We could approve the rules we posted, but then what’s the purpose of intelligent comment? We want help, because we’re creating this out of thin air,” he said. “The simple answer is I don’t see a license being available before Nov. 1 because the calendar doesn’t allow it. … Nov. 1 is a target, not a promise. But there are still issues.”

If Georgia’s going to have a hemp farming program, Black said, his office will not sacrifice accuracy for speed.

He added that establishing a process for hemp farm licensing and beginning uniform production and regulation procedures in the state may not clear up all of the confusion, as there are still issues being worked out at the federal level. The USDA has still not determined whether CBD products should be marketed as a food additive, a dietary supplement, an ingredient or other classifications, he said.

“Those have dramatic implications on our agency because of the food safety side of this equation,” he said. “Until they act, then we won’t know how to respond.”

Meanwhile, the FDA has issued no policy on hemp-derived CBD products and continues to warn prospective buyers that claims of health benefits may not be as cut-and-dried as they seem.

Still, CBD shop owner Bearden said the explosion of interest and acceptance of cannabis products across the country, and the even wider acceptance of CBD, is indicative of their potential benefits, as well as a shift in attitude toward the benefits of the cannabis plant.

The current generation of young professionals and entrepreneurs has put so much pressure on their elected officials to reconsider cannabis products that they can no longer be ignored, he said.

Bearden counts himself among those.

“The task that we’ve been trying to accomplish has already been accomplished. Now it’s just waiting it out,” Bearden said.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas

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