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The cannabis industry is growing across the globe, and in North Carolina, too. Here’s what to know about the past, present and future of cannabis, in this state and beyond.
Four years ago, Kymberly M., a small business owner from eastern North Carolina, got so sick that she believes she almost died. She recovered, but was diagnosed with several auto-immune disorders that she’ll deal with for the rest of her life. So began an odyssey of meeting with different doctors, circling through a “pill wheel” of prescription medications, even being prescribed morphine for pain.
“I felt like each doctor was playing a guessing game with my health,” says Kymberly, who didn’t want her full name used due to the personal nature of her story. “I felt myself getting more and more dependent on pills. [The morphine prescription] not only scared me, it opened my eyes…I could live the rest of my life going from doctor to doctor, prescription to prescription. Or, I could explore alternative options.”
Kymberly made some changes to her diet and tried yoga and acupuncture. She also discovered cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive cannabis compound (or phytocannabinoid) found in the hemp plant that’s used for therapeutic treatment. (Though they’re in the same family of cannabis plant, hemp is different from marijuana, the plant that contains the phytocannabinoid THC, which gets you high).
Kymberly rubs CBD cream on her joints whenever she has aches and pains, and takes oils under her tongue a few times a day.
“It has been a game changer for the pain management, but I’ve found other benefits from it, such as weight control, and it has kept me off all pain pills,” Kymberly says. “I use one oil in the daytime. Another oil helps me sleep the best I’ve ever slept. It’s been a long journey in the healing of these diseases. I know they will never go away, but CBD oil has brought it full circle for me.”
In the past few years, hemp dispensaries have opened up all over the state, including in Raleigh. There’s Forever Hemp on Fayetteville Road and The Hemp Store on Old Milburnie Road. There’s Oak City Cannabis, which you can find at pop-up events, including at the new Raleigh Night Market. And there’s The Hemp Farmacy, which opened this summer in a prominent location on the edge of downtown.
These dispensaries carry CBD health and wellness products, including balms, lotions and salves, but also candies and gummies, teas and oils for vaping. Local companies are also exploring options for using CBD in cosmetics, pet food, human food and drinks—even beer.
With the global legal cannabis market poised to be valued at around $150 billion by 2025, we can only expect to see the cannabis industry keep growing—and growing quickly—here at home.
But, in pre-empting this growth, local purveyors, growers and advocates say they want the public, and lawmakers, to have a better understanding of the science behind the use of cannabis for medical treatment, and to understand the laws that currently allow hemp and marijuana to be cultivated, processed, manufactured and sold.
Generally, cannabis falls in the most restrictive federal class of drugs, Schedule I, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. These are defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” although in September, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reclassified some CBD as Schedule V—a tacit acknowledgment of its medical value.
In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department issued the Cole Memorandum to U.S. attorneys which stated that, due to limited resources, it would not enforce federal marijuana prohibition in states that had already legalized cannabis for medical and recreational use (though under the Trump administration, the memo has since been rescinded).
“We have evolved to a point beyond the notion that marijuana is as dangerous as heroin or acid,” says Steve Gormley, an expert in the legal marijuana sector and president and CEO of International Cannabrands, a cannabis industry brands conglomerate. “The two guys smoking a joint are not starting a barroom brawl. That’ll be the two martini drinking guys, whether they’re in suits or not. And the U.S. electorate and politicians alike are recognizing that.”
In 2014, a federal farm bill provided the framework for states to begin cultivating “industrial hemp,” defined as cannabis with less than .3 percent THC. North Carolina passed a bill in 2015 allowing a newly created Industrial Hemp Commission to develop rules and a licensing structure, and the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program was introduced in 2016, with temporary rules adopted the next year. As of late last month, the state has issued more than 390 licenses to local farmers and other cannabis growers; businesses that want to buy, sell and manufacture hemp products for consumers must also register with the state’s Industrial Hemp Commission.
On a recent afternoon, I stopped in at the Hemp Farmacy on Hillsborough Street. The franchise, which opened its first locations in Wilmington in 2017 and has stores in Jacksonville, Asheville and Fayetteville, feels like a medical clinic: a green cross logo, all-white painted walls, minimal furniture and decor. I add my name to a waiting list and show an attendant—a “hemp tender,” as they’re called—my driver’s license to prove I’m 18. Then, we head to the back of the store, be-hind the reception desk, where there are several glass-top cases containing CBD products. I explain that I’m looking for something for my mom, who suffers from arthritis.
CBD prevents the re-uptake of FAAH anandamide enzyme, which is key in pain management, my consultant explains. She walks me through what’s available—oils, balms, salves, with different levels of concentration of CBD. I settle on a salve from the brand “The Healing Rose,” a 150 milligram pot of topical that’s infused with orange, lavender and chamomile, with 70 percent CBD. It costs $40, but, the hemp tender tells me, a little goes a long way.
“We have a very loyal base of returning customers,” explains Sam Gale, the educator at the Hemp Farmacy’s Raleigh location. “As a general overview, CBD is a pleiotropic drug that goes along molecular pathways in the body and acts differently on each of the 63 identified pathways. It interacts with a whole variety of different things, it has anti-inflammatory properties, mood regulating properties, sleep cycle regulating properties, appetite regulating properties. It helps the body get back to a state of homeostasis.”
It’s a marketing pitch, clearly, but one that is backed up by some medical research—and a lot of anecdotal evidence.
Just down Interstate 40, in the Research Triangle Park, I meet Garrett Perdue, the CEO of Root Bioscience, a startup that processes North Carolina-grown cannabis flower, or biomass, for CBD oil, which it then uses to manufacture health and wellness products for retail and for other CBD brands.
In just two months this summer, the company raised $2 million and is poised to be the leading cannabis manufacturing company in the region. Investors include some of the world’s top consumer products experts, and a number of the Triangle’s chief life sciences and tech executives, according to Perdue.
“The most important thing that distinguishes us is the quality of the people involved in this business,” Perdue says. He names Miles Wright, the company’s COO, who has an extensive background in materials manufacturing and entrepreneurship, and Pete Geisen, the vice president of operations, who’s worked in the life sciences and pharmaceuticals spheres. A group of young scientists with backgrounds in bio- and analytical chemistry, cannabis extraction, molecular biology and biotechnology rounds out the team.
“You’ll see humans with advanced degrees from leading universities,” Perdue says. “The quality of people we have in our operations is absolutely remarkable.”
Perdue and Root Bioscience co-founder, Neil Bagchi, are both attorneys whose forays into the cannabis industry began as advocacy for patients benefitting from the use of cannabis derivatives as alternative health treatments. They started a nonprofit, Sensible South, which has become the Southeast’s premier medical cannabis advocacy entity and is active in 13 states. One of the group’s advisers is Dr. David Casarett, a physician, professor of medicine and chief of palliative care at Duke University, as well as the author of “Stoned: A Doctor’s Case For Medical Marijuana.”
In 2016, over dinner with a group of executives from a major U.S. medical cannabis operator, Perdue and Bagchi learned that that company needed to source a large quantity of CBD isolate for use in products for treating patients.
“I had the sense to ask how much they were paying, and they told me, and we recognized it was a very legitimate business opportunity,” Perdue says. He and Bagchi obtained a license under the auspices of the state’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, made some hires and partnered with a farmer’s co-op in the northeastern part of the state, which gave them access to 200,000 pounds of biomass.
At its RTP facility, the company uses an ethanol-based process to extract CBD oils and convert them into three different products: full spectrum oils, which include a wide range of cannabinoids including trace amounts—up to .3 percent, legally— of THC; broad spectrum oils, which contain no traces of THC, but do contain other cannabinoids, and CBD Isolate, which is up to 99.9 percent pure CBD.
“Our goal in 2019 is to process 500 pounds of biomass per day, and convert those into CBD isolate products,” Perdue says. Third party contractors can then order those CBD isolate products for use in their own products in what’s becoming a booming emerging industry, nationally and internationally.
For instance, this summer the Origins brand from cosmetics giant Estée Lauder launched Hello, Calm, a face mask and the company’s first product made with cannabis oil. Coca-Cola is reportedly looking at producing cannabis infused drinks in partnership with Aurora Cannabis, Inc., a company out of Canada, where cannabis for recreational use just became legal last month. Heineken sells Hi-Fi Hops, a non-alcoholic beverage designed to taste like beer, in some California cannabis dispensaries under its Lagunitas brand.
Even local companies are getting in on the act.
“Lonerider is exploring a collaboration with Root Bioscience for both our beer and spirits at the moment,” said Sumit Vohra, the CEO of Raleigh’s Lonerider Brewing, in a statement to Raleigh Magazine. “Since the landscape is ever changing, we have a lot to navigate through but we are hopeful to have a CBD based product next year.”
Perdue emphasizes a distinction between the business, Root Bioscience, and Sensible South, the advocacy group he and Bagchi continue to oversee. “We’re actively advocating for sensible changes to cannabis policy that allow patients to access cannabis for medical purposes,” he says.
This includes cannabis intended for treatment that contains THC. Though the research into medical marijuana is limited, there is growing evidence that THC, when used alone and when used in combination with other cannabinoids, such as CBD, is effective in treating a range of ailments. In treating neurological disorders, including pediatric seizures—the FDA approved the CBD drug Epidiolex this summer for treating seizures associated with epilepsy—the medical evidence is especially strong.
Anecdotally, patients report success using CBD and/or THC to treat myriad conditions, including Irritable Bowel Disorder, Chron’s diseases, muscle spasticity in multiple sclerosis, insomnia, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, autism and recovery from opioid abuse.
“If you ask me as a researcher, there is probably enough evidence to warrant legalizing medical cannabis use in North Carolina,” says David Casarett, the physician, author and Duke professor. “Not definitively, not for certain, not for all conditions. But, yeah, there is enough evidence for some. As a physician who takes care of patients with severe pain that’s been resistant to multiple medications—patients who want to stop taking opioids, patients with severe nausea or vomiting, patients taking medications that don’t work—people who really are suffering, who want to try anything else, I would say yeah [to legalization]. For a lot of patients, though there haven’t been great clinical trials, they’re often not willing to wait [for clinical trials], because everything else hasn’t worked and they are miserable. You can make the argument that they deserve a chance.”
Casarett can’t recommend medical marijuana to his patients in North Carolina since it’s illegal here. He notes that about one in ten cannabis users can develop a dependency on the drug, and that there are outstanding concerns about driving under the influence. He also urges caution when viewing medical cannabis, and CBD in particular, as a cure-all solution to the opioid crisis and to other ailments, and he urges potential consumers to buy quality verified products only, as unscrupulous sellers have been known to hawk CBD branded products that are actually just vegetable oil.
“CBD is one of these drugs that is new, and people are touting its uses for pretty much everything,” Casarett says. “It can’t be as beneficial as everybody says it is. It can be good for PTSD and sleep and flexibility and inflammation, but no single molecule can have all the effects people are ascribing to CBD. It’s just not physiologically possible.”
But, he adds, with the right safeguards, good quality control practices, and patient and physician education in place, there’s no reason North Carolina shouldn’t follow the lead of the 31 other states, and Washington D.C., where medical marijuana is legal, or even the nine states that allow for its recreational use.
On the Horizon
Indeed, during legislative sessions in the past several years in North Carolina, state lawmakers have introduced legalization bills, only to see them go nowhere. But it soon could be a moot point, anyway: blanket legalization for medical use at the federal level is likely on the horizon.
“I think the eventuality is a full repeal of banned cannabis based products across the board,” says Gormley, the Cannabrands CEO. “A plurality of politicians on both sides of the aisle support use of medical marijuana and endorse states’ legal access to cannabis based medicines. There are a lot of politicians on the left and in the Democratic wing who recognize that the war on marijuana is racist and has been bad for taxpayers. Libertarians like the job growth and economic opportunities. On the state level, governors say they want to exploit the tax revenues available in taxing and regulating the drug.”
The benefits of legalization to North Carolinians seem too numerous to ignore. It comes as no surprise that, last month, the News and Observer found in a survey that many of the state’s most influential leaders in business and politics generally favor legalization or decriminalization. Not only can medical cannabis offer relief, with few drawbacks, to veterans suffering from PTSD, opioid addicts, arthritic moms and people like Kymberly M., who experience chronic pain, but it could net the state millions in fee-for-service Medicaid and marijuana law enforcement savings, and bring an end to the disproportionate marijuana arrests and incarceration of people of color, who use the drug at the same rate as whites.
“North Carolina needs to go back to its history and be progressive on this issue,” says Perdue. “There’s absolutely no industry that could have these positive [economic] results faster, and with more impact, than cannabis. It’s just unfortunate that a 40 year old stigma, driven by politics and converse industry purposes, puts us in a position that, right now, that’s not possible.”
“I will always be grateful for finding the benefits of CBD oil and hope that North Carolina will see the light to pass medical marijuana,” she says. “It’s a no brainer. Regulate and manage the market and reap the benefits. Or continue to keep the business underground and let the criminals run it.”
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