How CBD blew up faster than Florida could regulate it

Despite murky state laws, local retailers are cashing in on hemp before legislators pass clear guidelines.
Published April 25
Updated April 25

LARGO — Christopher Hargiss pinched the black rubber top, sending a slurp of oil through a glass tube. With another light squeeze, a droplet swirled into a tiny paper cup of water.

"I call it gold in a bottle," Hargiss beamed.

He and his wife, Jessica, are banking on just that.

Earlier this year they opened a “Your CBD Store,” selling oils, creams and candies infused with the hemp extract. On Facebook, they advertise “health without the high.”

Their shop on W Bay Drive is part of an explosion of businesses nationwide peddling products derived from hemp, a cousin of marijuana. Sellers seem to have sprung up every few blocks, while existing retailers ranging from T-shirt shops to tanning salons are suddenly displaying “CBD SOLD HERE” signs.

In mere months, it went from headshops to coffee bars — a counter-culture extract to a latte add-on almost as mainstream as caramel syrup.

CBD stands for cannabidiol, a compound found in hemp and marijuana that doesn't get users stoned. Advocates say it eases a variety of ailments, from pain to anxiety.

READ MORE: We answer your CBD questions

Aside from its approved use for seizures, proof of CBD’s health benefits is murky. And so are the rules governing its production and sale.

The CBD boom was sparked in part by a change in federal law late last year. It cleared a path for farmers to grow hemp, removing it from a list of illegal drugs as long as it contains no more than traces of THC, the compound in marijuana that causes a high. But the new law requires each state to set up its own hemp regulations, which must then be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Florida lawmakers are drafting the rules now. But the Sunshine State’s hemp-preneurs aren’t waiting. They’re jockeying to be first in line for what they hope will be a modern day goldrush, shipping in hemp from out of state or overseas.

It's a high-stakes bet: In 2018, the global hemp industry reached $3.7 billion in retail sales, according to cannabis analysts with New Frontier Data. By 2022, the U.S. market is projected to reach $1.3 billion on CBD sales alone.

“It’s a risk versus reward analysis,” said cannabis attorney Chelsie Spencer. “It’s literally like operating in the Wild West for these guys right now.”

Law enforcement is largely standing down, waiting for clarity on how to police an industry that blew up faster than Florida lawmakers could write a rulebook.

•••

While Florida has struggled with a medical marijuana rollout since voters approved its sale in 2016, CBD offerings have sprouted across Tampa Bay, particularly in the last six months.

SoHo Juice Co. will add it to your smoothies at all four of its locations from Tampa to Winter Park. Plant+Love Ice Cream offers CBD-infused flavors in downtown St. Petersburg. Ybor City’s Chillum Dispensary gives away CBD bong hits before yoga classes.

Pet stores sell hemp treats to calm anxious cats and dogs. National health food chains carry it in their apothecary aisles and CVS and Rite Aid are planning to sell it.

A search for “CBD” near Tampa yields more than 100 retailers.

Florida Hemp Industries Association co-founder Taylor Biehl said the federal law change prompted "a ripple effect in popularity."

Rachael Quinn was ahead of the hemp surge, opening the first Your CBD Store just more than a year ago in Bradenton. She used the extract herself, relying on a company that was sourcing its hemp from China. She said it alleviated the inflammation in her digestive tract caused by Crohn's disease.

“When I first opened, it was more like a hobby,” Quinn said. “It was the first thing that worked for me and I wanted to get it out there.”

Soon she was importing hemp from farms out west to make her own CBD product line. She has ballooned to 170 affiliate stores around the country, including the one opened by the Hargisses in Largo. Another 60 are in the works.

Quinn said she carefully followed the evolution of the federal farm bill, which is reauthorized every five years, to make sure she was following the rules likely to be adopted by states.

The 2014 version of the legislation had allowed the growth of hemp through pilot programs, which is how Quinn gets her supply. Last year’s bill explicitly removed hemp, and extracts from it including cannibinoids, from a list of illegal drugs. It clearly defined hemp as cannabis with no more than .3 percent THC.

It was signed in rare bipartisan fashion to provide relief to farmers, and was embraced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

"At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future,” he said. “My provision in the farm bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”

•••

Passage of the farm bill has put Florida’s new and famously pot-friendly agriculture commissioner in a bind.

Nikki Fried ran for the office partly on a platform of making medical marijuana more widely available. But Florida's laws are still playing catchup to the federal government's new definition of hemp. As written, Florida's Controlled Substance Act doesn't differentiate between hemp and non-medical marijuana.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, the state's current statute says cannabis derivatives, like CBD, cannot legally be sold in Florida.

"We’re working with some of the lawmakers so they can change the definition so that we can, in fact, do a CBD program here in our state to make it very clear," Fried said during a February news conference.

Spencer, a Dallas attorney licensed in Texas and Florida, guides her clients through a maze of calculated risk when entering the hemp business. Some, she said, have already purchased acres in Florida to cultivate hemp in anticipation of the legal change.

Her savviest retail clients have her survey an area to decide whether it's safe to set up shop there. None of her Tampa clients have had any legal trouble.

But a month before the farm bill was signed by President Donald Trump, officers in Tallahassee seized $25,000 worth of hemp products from a shop there.

This year, Sarasota police considered taking similar measures after a string of people said CBD they purchased in February made them ill. On April 3, the police canceled a CBD crackdown until clearer laws are passed.

"Most people outside of the industry think CBD as a whole is almost scared of regulation," Spencer said. "But the people who are doing this correctly, they want regulation."

Without state guidelines in place, not all CBD for sale in Florida is created equal. CBD can be extracted using a solvent like paint thinner, mixed with olive oil and sold at a gas station. Hemp seed oil, which is not the same compound, is often sold online and intentionally mislabeled as CBD. Unwitting buyers have little recourse.

Fried said once the proposed legislation is made into law, she will send cease-and-desist letters to businesses found to be selling untested or unsafe CBD or hemp products.

•••

Carlos Hermida fought for medical marijuana's legalization as the former vice president of the Florida Cannabis Coalition. Now, he's using CBD to teach people about his favorite family of plants within his Ybor shop, Chillum CBD Dispensary.

"A lot of people don't know what CBD is, don’t know what hemp is, don’t know what cannabis is," he said. "The biggest hurdle is education."

His shelves hold canisters of hemp flowers, massive glass pipes, grinders and vape pens. The store's name has an obvious tie to marijuana culture — a "chillum" is a small pipe often used to smoke marijuana.

He's also happy to point shoppers to doctors who will prescribe medical marijuana if he thinks their ailments would be better served by cannabis over his variety of hemp products.

Quinn's business formula, on the other hand, is limited selection.

In Largo, the Hargisses decorate their Your CBD Store like Quinn asks of all her affiliates. The walls are baby blue. There's lounge seating and only a few shelves to display a small product assortment.

Most of the chain's clientele is 60 and older, often struggling with arthritis. Quinn wanted to create an environment that was comfortable for those who would be turned off going into a smoke shop.

Jessica Hargiss first encountered CBD in dental school at Temple University. She ran a study with another student to see if the compound could ease dental pain. They tested the theory using rats.

Before CBD became three of the hottest letters on the market, Hargiss said she was already turned on to its possible benefits.

Her mother had incorporated the extract into her cancer treatment and is now in remission. Hargiss was a firm CBD believer, but it wasn't until she was studying for her board exams that she realized just how much faith she was willing to put into hemp.

"I wanted to help relieve pain," Hargiss said, "not be the one causing it."

So she set aside her plan to be dentist. She was already working at one of Quinn's shops in Sarasota when she decided to open one herself. Hargiss turned her husband from a CBD non-believer into a business partner. He relies on hemp creams to ease his back pain and the oil to manage anxiety.

Now, she's determined to convince everyone else.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

Glossary

Cannabis: A family of plants, of which Hemp and Marijuana both derive.

Hemp: A member of the cannabis family that under federal guidelines can have no more than .3 percent of psychoactive content.

Marijuana: A member of the cannabis family that has higher amounts of psychoactive content, which produces a buzzed or euphoric feeling.

Cannabinoids: A class of chemical compounds that are found in the Cannabis sativa plant and interact with receptors on the surface of the cells in the central nervous system.

THC: Tetrahydrocannabinol is one of the primary cannabinoids that occur naturally in cannabis plants. It is psychoactive, meaning it's the chemical compound that causes a high.

CBD: Cannabidiol is the other primary cannabinoid that occurs naturally in cannabis plants. It is non-psychoactive, which means it will not get the user high. It is extracted from hemp and often sold as an oil.

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