As the Winter Olympics soar to their conclusion, it’s clear that the Russian doping scandal did little to diminish the majesty of the spectacle. But the controversy did highlight the critical work of an organization whose mission is to best ensure that athletes are playing clean of performance-enhancing drugs: the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). While WADA’s enforcement ability sometimes seems quite wan — the International Olympic Committee’s “punishment” of Russia was in name only — the agency has taken a hard line in its pronouncements to hold athletics to the highest moral standard.
That’s why the world took notice last fall when WADA dropped from its list of prohibited substances a substance called cannabidiol, better known as CBD. The exemption was soon followed by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence issuance of a report, opining that naturally occurring CBD is safe and well-tolerated in humans (and animals), and is not linked with any negative public health concerns. WHO concluded that CBD does not induce physical dependence and is not associated with abuse potential: “To date, there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health related problems with the use of pure CBD.”
And yet…fast forward to February. Just a few weeks ago, 23 retail stores in Murfreesboro, Tennessee were raided, padlocked, and their owners arrested and locked behind bars, for the crime of…selling CBD products. Termed “Operation Candy Crush,” a multi-agency law enforcement operation charged store owners for targeting kids with marijuana-laced candies.
The retailers were released on bail, a judge quickly re-opened the stores, and a hearing set for March 19 should clarify what really happened. But the incident already shines a huge spotlight on a large and growing national controversy:
What the H is CBD?
In 2013, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta brought to the world’s attention a fascinating chemical compound that a growing number of parents swore was helping provide desperately needed relief to their severely ill children. CBD is naturally occurring, and even before the WHO report, was viewed by most of the medical profession as safe to consume. However, its most common source was quite controversial — the cannabis plant. CBD began to be held up as a piñata in the increasingly intense national debate over legalizing medical marijuana.
It turns out, however, that marijuana is not the only variety of cannabis. Marijuana is distinctive by its significant content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that gets people high. A typical joint today will contain upwards of 5-20% THC.
But there’s another variety of cannabis that contains no THC, or only a tiny trace. It’s called industrial hemp. Hemp is defined by federal law as cannabis sativa L, and all parts of that plant, containing 0.3% THC or less. It’s like the natural food version of decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer. Except of course, hemp foods are high in nutritional value, with plenty of protein and all nine essential amino acids.
Hemp was a leading U.S. cash crop in the 18th and 19th centuries, grown by many of our nation’s founders — Lexington’s Henry Clay was a hemp farmer, too — and was critical to U.S. efforts in both world wars. But in the early 20th century, as “reefer madness” enraptured the nation, hemp farming was banned in the U.S.
That all changed just a few years ago when political leaders like Kentucky’s U.S. Rep. James Comer and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helped develop new federal and state legal permissions for hemp. The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill created a pilot program regime that allows states to regulate hemp growth and cultivation, and permits commerce in hemp and hemp products. The 2016 Omnibus Law subsequently prohibited federal agencies from interfering with hemp pilot programs. It also specifically banned federal dollars from being spent to hinder the interstate sale or transport of hemp products. (More details on legality can be found here.)
As part of this grand experiment, a new sub-industry has developed: CBD products derived from hemp. Unlike products marketed for medicinal value, hemp-derived CBD is sold over the counter at health food and natural food stores across the country, next to other natural supplements such as fish oil and Vitamin D. Like those nutrients, consumers take CBD oil, foods and capsules for general health and wellness, without promise of disease remediation. I’m a satisfied customer.
Best yet, even in this pilot program phase, hemp-derived CBD is already creating new economic opportunities for farmers and small businesses. Kentucky’s hemp program, led by Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, serves as the model for the nation: Hundreds of jobs have been created, and millions of dollars of revenue have been earned in the Bluegrass State alone. Economists predict a multi-billion dollar U.S. industry in the short term. And think about this: Farmers who have struggled because of the decline of tobacco — a product that kills people — are now finding new opportunity in hemp, a plant that’s not only good for health and wellness, but also is sustainable and healthy for the planet.
Hemp is not marijuana. Hemp-derived CBD is not medical marijuana.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the media from lumping them all into the same rhetorical basket. It hasn’t stopped unscrupulous sham artists from inappropriately marketing CBD as a wonder drug that solves all ailments. And worse, it hasn’t stopped scoundrels from targeting children with products that contain high levels of THC, under the guise of CBD’s emerging celebrity.
But these bad apples should not be used as a pretext to undermine the re-emerging U.S. hemp industry. Legislation is currently pending in Congress that would clarify hemp as an agricultural commodity and permanently remove it from the purview of Controlled Substances Act. Its prospects look bright because it has the support of liberals like Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR); Tea Party icons like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY); and mainstream, pro-law enforcement conservatives like Rep. Comer, Leader McConnell and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Critically, the legislation has also won the endorsement of influential national agriculture organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.