Inside the Wild West of the CBD products industry
CBD became the "it" product of 2019, but there is little regulation.
Sitting at home on his ranch in Elk, Washington, Sgt. Ben Hayhurst said he feels most at peace when he's outdoors.
"That's why we moved out here. It's honestly where I'm more comfortable," he said.
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"There [were] 19 of us and four Humvees that were hit with a large scale ambush. … I think a lot of us believed we weren't going to get out of there," Hayhurst said. "It wasn't just the bullets that hit me. [It] was chunks of concrete and metal. … I figured we would die."
Hayhurst survived the war, but his physical and emotional wounds were nursed with opiates. He became lost, until he said the hemp plant and CBD helped him live his life again.
"I was in a bad place on the pain meds, on and off suicidal," he said. "And without that change, I don't know that I would be here."
CBD -- which stands for cannabidiol -- became the "it" product of 2019. From cafes to fitness centers, health food stores, delis and even pet shops, CBD is sold in various forms including as an oil and in capsule form to beverages, lotions and even gummies.
"CBD is cannabidiol. Cannabidiol is one of over 140 cannabinoids in cannabis plants especially in hemp strains that have very low THC," said Dr. Yasmin Hurd, the director of the Addiction Institute at the Mount Sinai Behavioral Health System. "So unlike THC, which when people smoke marijuana cannabis to get high, it's THC that produces the reinforcing effects, the euphoric effects. CBD does not. It's non-intoxicating."
There is a lot experts still don’t know about CBD and CBD products. Hurd, who has been studying the cannabinoid for a decade, said experts know that CBD can affect transmitters in the brain.
"[CBD] modulates… serotonin that we know is important for anxiety and mood," she said. "And it also impacts on inflammatory processes, even in immune-related systems in the brain."
The market for these products is predicted to reach $20 billion by 2024, according to BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research.
Experts, however, say the frenetic growth of the industry is far outpacing the scientific data around the product, leading skeptics to call it snake oil and believers, including pro-athletes to celebrities, to call it a cure-all.
Whereas marijuana is only legal in 11 states and Washington, D.C., for adults older than 21, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill last year, which legalized hemp and opened the door for the CBD craze.
"The Farm Bill of 2018 that changed CBD from being as a Schedule 1 illegal substance to now being unscheduled and being agricultural has really revolutionized the U.S.," Hurd said. "Therefore, many people have put CBD in water, in coffee, in food, in makeup, in everything."
CBD comes from a variety of sources. In Hayhurst's case, he uses an oil tincture from the brand Warfighter, a CBD company geared specifically toward veterans. He adds the CBD oil to his coffee every morning.
Warfighter hemp comes from a commercial hemp company in Wellington, Colorado, called Colorado Cultivars, one of the largest organic hemp farms in the U.S. with about 3,500 acres of plants.
"Warfighter hemp was looking for really high-quality CBD product that they could see and have very transparent interaction with the producers," said Damien Farris, the director of agronomy at Colorado Cultivars. "They work with a lot of veterans that have PTSD or were trying to get off of opiates."
Farris and his team work to genetically breed new and different strains of hemp to test for higher levels of a variety of the plant's uses, including grain production and fiber, but most importantly for their business: CBD.
"We had kind of an idea where it was going to go, but didn't have a complete idea because a lot of the legality on the federal level was not clear and we didn't have a clear timeline when that would happen," he said. "Since the Farm Bill happened last year, at the beginning of this year, the industry has just exploded."
During harvest, the hemp seeds are separated from the plant's flowers and then sent for processing, where the CBD is extracted. Farris said they go through about 2,000 pounds of hemp an hour.
"So once the dried plant material comes in... we soak it in ethanol and separate the infused ethanol from the dried plant material," Farris said. "We then take infused ethanol, evaporate the ethanol out and we're left with a CBD crude oil that we then further process into distillation."
From there, the oil is sent to the company's facility in Boulder, Colorado, for mixing and packaging.
"We can make our different products, so our tinctures, our lotions," said Janna Geoffrion, a mixologist for Warfighter. "It starts with mixing. We use like a calculator and it all goes by the percent of the CBD. So we have to have the tests done to know what we're using, and how much CBD and THC is in it and then we formulate the mix to dilute it down to [less than] .03 [% THC]."
Currently, there are no established CBD dosage guidelines, so consumers have to figure out how much CBD is right for them.
Most CBD products, even just from hemp, contain trace amounts of THC, which could be a major turn-off or a hindrance for some, such as people who are drug tested for work.
"There's been a lot of debates about whether or not CBD shows up on on toxicology tests because there can be some interactions with THC, for example," Hurd said.
It's something U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe grapples with as CBD has become a mainstay in her recovery routine. Rapinoe said she uses a CBD salve to rub on injuries and also will take CBD gel capsules.
"I use CBD all the time," she said. "Recovery is more and more becoming the most important thing that you can do... as an athlete -- even you know equal to what you're doing on the field."
Rapinoe, who helped lead the women's team to a World Cup victory, said she uses CBD products not just for pain management after a game, but also to deal with the stress of competition.
"It just helps to calm things down a little bit," she said. "There's certain periods in competition where THC is banned but CBD is legal. So CBD [is] off the WAD [World Anti-Doping] list now."
It's why Rapinoe and her twin sister, Rachel Rapinoe, started Mendi. The sisters say it's a THC-free line of CBD products designed specifically with pro-athletes in mind.
"I think a lot of people don't understand what CBD is," Megan Rapinoe said. "They don’t understand that the THC is the sort of psychoactive element of it but that if you are just taking CBD, you're not going to get that sort of high feeling."
"It became very clear that there's like a real fear around testing positive. And just having like any traces of THC," Rachel Rapinoe added. "That way [Mendi] just eliminates any fear of athletes for having any traces of THC in their system."
As entrepreneurs in a young industry, the sisters have had to navigate evolving regulation.
"There are some of us that are trying to do it the right way," Rachel Rapinoe said. "And as the FDA comes out with more regulations around it, we hope that it's going to wean a lot of those bad eggs out because there are definitely some people in the industry that are selling, you know, basically anything under the hood of their car and they're calling it CBD."
While it’s not required by law, companies like Mendi and Warfighter said they are taking it upon themselves to ensure quality by sending their products to third-party labs for testing.
"The good companies are companies that ... have third-party verification of what's in that product, that they've done safety test ... to the very bad with companies not caring what they're really putting in the CBD. In fact, they don't even have CBD so I think that unfortunately, the public have to do their own due diligence because the legislation, the regulations have not been strong enough," Hurd said.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on the illegal marketing of CBD products in food or as a cure for specific health issues. So far, the agency has only approved one CBD-based drug for a formulation called epidolex, which treats two rare and severe forms of child epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
"Other than that, the FDA has not approved CBD for any indication. Why? Research is needed," Hurd said. "Can CBD help uncertain conditions for certain disorders? Absolutely. But we need more clinical trials to be able to give the FDA evidence for them to make this decision about it."
The agency has also issued notices that CBD could cause health risks, including potential liver injury to male reproductive concerns.
But those who swear by CBD’s benefits are excited to see what the future holds for CBD.
"It's not going to take care of climate change and change your anxiety. It’s not going to do every single thing," Megan Rapinoe said. "But I think that there are a lot of very tangible benefits."
Hayhurst said that while he knows little medical research has been done on the effects of CBD, he plans to continue using it, as long as he sees the benefits for himself.
"[I'm] better every day, I would say," he said. "Whatever happened in my past, it happened because of the situation I was in -- and you slowly get past that. Those memories will never go away."
It's been 15 years since Hayhurst was discharged and he said, "I still deal with daily pain," but the main thing he struggles with is the anxiety.
"I feel like that will always, somewhat, be there," Hayhurst said. "But I feel like I'm learning to deal with it through, you know CBD… and therapy and just learning to accept myself for who I am."