With authorities opposed and customer demand high, Corridor retailers are weighing the risks of offering hemp-derived supplements. Above, Corner Store Apothecary Manager Jordan Loeffler and his mother, owner Kimberly Loeffler. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE
By Christine Hawes
Kim Loeffler, the owner of Corner Store Apothecary in Cedar Rapids, owns one of the few businesses in Iowa that provide customers with access to CBD oil, an emerging health supplement derived from hemp and containing only the non-psychoactive elements of the Cannabis sativa plant.
It’s a brave decision: Other Iowa stores selling the products have been raided in recent months following warnings from state officials and law enforcement agencies about their legality, while media reports have chronicled similar crackdowns in states including Tennessee, Indiana, Kansas and Utah. The federal government considers it a Schedule I drug, on par with LSD and heroin.
“It is the position of the department that CBD products other than those manufactured under the department’s regulatory program are not legal in the state of Iowa,” the Iowa Department of Public Health wrote in a memo released earlier this year.
But Ms. Loeffler stands strong as a distributor of the much-debated oil, which takes its name from cannabidiol (CBD), one of the hundreds of chemical compounds found in hemp. She not only carries it on her business’ shelves, but travels the state for panels and agency hearings about the product and meets privately on a regular basis with regulators, elected officials, law enforcement and other activists to make its case.
She calls her work on behalf of CBD oil a “labor of love” for her husband, who represents a classic CBD success story. Ms. Loeffler says that shortly after trying the oil for the first time, her husband found relief from not only seizures, but the brain fog created by the psychotropic medications he had been prescribed. Within two years of starting a regular regimen of CBD oil, he was able to stop four medications for his heart and diabetes and lost 100 pounds.
Ms. Loeffler remains more steadfast than ever in her convictions, despite the raids in early January that seized an estimated $8,000 of CBD oil products from stores in Muscatine and Carroll, according to news reports.
“I am in complete compliance with every law that is available,” she said. “I’ve researched and studied every Iowa law and every federal law. We have statistics and analysis showing that everything we’re doing is backed up by third-party testing to confirm there is no THC, only CBD.”
“It’s all about education,” she added. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to dispel myths and educate people on a better quality of life.”
Other retailers react
Coralville-based New Pioneer Coop chose a different path in response to the state’s letter declaring CBD oil illegal. The organic grocery chain pulled all of its hemp-derived CBD products off shelves in its Coralville, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City stores, said Genie Maybanks, New Pi’s marketing coordinator.
“We had people driving in from different parts of the state, giving us testimonials about how it was helping them for a myriad of different difficulties,” Ms. Maybanks said, but added that the law enforcement raids were “a little bit concerning.”
“While we might disagree with the [Iowa] Board of Pharmacy’s call on this, we’re committed to fair business practices whether we’re talking about fair trade coffee, paying local farmers a local wage or the pharmacy board,” she said. “So we’ve pulled this product until this gray area has been sorted out.”
The response among other natural food retailers has varied. Lucky’s Market, a Boulder, Colorado-based grocer with a store in Iowa City, continues to carry the product, but declined to speak further about its decision. Natural Grocers, another Colorado-based chain with stores in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, said it has never carried the product because of confusion over how regulators are applying federal rules about CBD oil and interpreting widely varying state laws.
“Because of the gray area, our legal department has said it’s not a good idea to bring in any hemp-derived CBD products,” said Karen Falbo, national director of nutrition for Natural Grocers. “So we’re not carrying any just because of the regulatory issues. But if that changes, we would absolutely bring in the hemp-derived CBD oil.”
The CBD oil seizures in Muscatine and Carroll, reported by the Des Moines Register, were conducted without first testing the oil, although police samples sent to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation for laboratory analysis later confirmed “the CBD products seized in the investigation are marijuana under Iowa law,” the Muscatine County Attorney’s Office said in a Jan. 2, 2018 news release.
Ms. Loeffler and Ms. Maybanks question whether there is a clear understanding among state and local officials of what CBD oil is, what it contains and what its effects are.
Regulators tend to interchange the terms marijuana and hemp with each other, and they tend to interchange the word “marijuana” with cannabis, they said. In specific usage, cannabis is the plant from which both marijuana and hemp are created.
But hemp is derived from the stalks and fibers of the plant, while marijuana is derived from the leaves and flowers. In addition, CBD is the element of cannabis that is derived from the stalks and fibers and has no psychoactive effects, although research is increasingly demonstrating its ability to alleviate inflammation and pain. THC, the psychoactive part of cannabis, is barely present in the stalks and fibers from which CBD oil is harvested.
Ms. Loeffler says she carries only CBD oil certified by third parties as hemp-derived. New Pi also carried only hemp-derived CBD oil, Ms. Maybanks said.
“This isn’t a product that makes people feel altered,” Ms. Maybanks said. “It’s a product that people were using for a specific medical need.”
The regulatory puzzle
Whether at the state or federal level, the laws surrounding CBD oil are confusing, sometimes contradictory and in transition.
CBD oil officially becomes legal for medical marijuana patients under Iowa law next year and a regulatory system is currently being set up. Meanwhile, letters and statements declaring CBD oil illegal have come down from the Iowa Board of Pharmacy, the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy and the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Andrew Funk, executive director of the Iowa Pharmacy Board, did not return requests for an interview. But in previous interviews, he has described hemp plants as “a variety of marijuana” and declared them illegal. Even CBD oil that complies with the state’s new law allowing up to 3 percent THC is illegal, Mr. Funk has said.
How local authorities choose to apply those statements varies from county to county. At the federal level, the confusion runs even deeper.
“CBD is still a Schedule I substance. It’s still federally illegal,” said Beth Collins, senior director of government relations and external affairs at Americans for Safe Access, which advocates for legal medical marijuana therapy and research. “So every patient, every producer, is committing a federal crime,” even those in states where CBD oil is fully legal under state laws.
However, Ms. Collins explained, distributors and medical users of CBD oil are currently “protected” under the Commerce, Justice & Science Medical Marijuana amendment on the current federal budget package. Scheduled to expire on March 23, the amendment prohibits the Department of Justice from expending any federal funds to interfere with state medical cannabis laws.
“What we really need is permanent federal legislation that keeps the federal government from interfering in state medical cannabis laws and programs,” Ms. Collins said.
While all of these regulatory questions are being sorted out, Ms. Loeffler continues her advocacy and is working now on producing a forum in Cedar Rapids to help “dispel the myths.”
She and Ms. Maybanks point out that the crackdown on hemp-derived CBD oil is contradictory, considering that hemp-derived products can now be found at big-box stores like Walmart.
Those products include blankets, ropes, salad oils, cereals, granolas and more – none of which are being pulled off of shelves in raids in the way that hemp-derived CBD oil has been.
“I think some regulators are jumping on the bandwagon and not really educating themselves on what they’re trying to seize,” Ms. Loeffler said. “They’re putting the cart before the horse.”