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Albuquerque’s CBD market blooms

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The balm is green and possesses a vaguely herbal odor. When massaged on the hand, there’s a slight cooling effect – or perhaps it’s just this reporter’s imagination.

“When people come into the store and complain about plantar fasciitis, I tell them to rub this on their feet,” said Cassie Eaton, manager of Nature’s Secret CBD and Oils.

CBD stands for cannabidiol, a cannabis-derived substance that can be found in both hemp and marijuana plants. Unlike the compound THC, which is also found in both plants (though in very small quantities in hemp), CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it doesn’t create a “high” or affect brain function. Still, many who sell CBD-laced products claim it can be used to help alleviate anxiety as well as pain, inflammation and a host of other conditions.

Nature’s Secret sells a variety of CBD products aimed at a diverse clientele, including pet owners. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

At Nature’s Secret, products run from $5 (a CBD lollipop) to $300 (a solution infused with thousands of milligrams of CBD). Because Nature’s Secret isn’t a licensed cannabis dispensary and sells items with either no or only trace amounts of THC, customers can make purchases without a medical marijuana card. The store opened in January, and Eaton says customer demand has boomed in recent months: what was once being purchased by the business in a pack of 20 now must be ordered in a pack of 40 to stay in stock, and there’s a waitlist for several items.

CBD vaping products at Nature’s Secret. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Journal identified 12 stores in Albuquerque that sell CBD products to the public at large that are not licensed dispensaries. Many products can also be purchased online from a variety of retailers. While estimates on the size of New Mexico’s CBD market are hard to come by, Vincent Galbiati, executive director of the newly-formed New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, says the CBD market within the state and elsewhere is “positioned for phenomenal growth.” That’s in line with a report from market research firm Brightfield Group, which projects that the hemp-derived CBD industry in the U.S. will grow to $1 billion by 2020.

And it’s not just cannabis advocates who are intrigued by the substance’s potential: Coca-Cola recently confirmed it is “closely watching” the expanding market for CBD-infused beverages.

“It’s only for its public perception that (CBD) hasn’t become more mainstream, and we’re starting to see that turn happen,” said Galbiati.

But is the promise of CBD — medically, legally and economically — borne out by the facts?

‘Not a panacea’

A World Health Organization report published this year described cannabidiol as a substance that is “generally well-tolerated with a good safety profile.” The report states that clinical trials have shown CBD is an effective treatment for some forms of epilepsy, and there’s a variety of early-stage research exploring the substance’s anti-inflammatory, antipsychotic, neuroprotective and other properties. However, “this research is considerably less advanced than for the treatment of epilepsy,” according to the report.

“There are numerous CBD products . . . that are being manufactured and distributed without regulatory oversight and often with unverified contents,” the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence wrote in the report. “The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued two major series of warning letters to manufacturers for fraudulent medical claims . . . and fraudulent production claims.”

Registered nurse and Verdes Foundation Chief Operating Officer Rachael Speegle, left, with New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vincent Galbiati, right. The hemp-derived CBD market in the U.S. is estimated to reach $1 billion by 2020. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s that lack of oversight that concerns Rachael Speegle, a registered nurse and the chief operating officer at the Verdes Foundation, one of the state’s 35 licensed non-profit medical marijuana producers. Vendors who sell CBD products over-the-counter to the public don’t fall under the New Mexico Department of Health’s jurisdiction unless they are licensed through the medical marijuana program, so they aren’t subject to the same product testing and dosing requirements mandated by the state.

“CBD at a tanning salon isn’t being sold under the same requirements as the cannabis industry here, and that concerns me as a nurse because I don’t know what people are taking,” said Speegle.

And while CBD is more accessible to the public than medical marijuana, it is not a replacement for it, according to Speegle. She said she’s seen individuals respond well to CBD when they are seeking help with inflammation, damage to the peripheral nerves and certain autoimmune issues, among other conditions. But patients seeking relief from severe chronic pain or other acute conditions that would qualify them for the state’s medical marijuana program are often better candidates for products that also contain THC, according to Speegle.

Speegle has other concerns as well: topical applications have a limited effect because skin only has so many relevant receptors, and individuals taking massive quantities of CBD will eventually produce fewer natural cannabinoids, she said. Finally, it’s possible that person could test positive on a drug test for THC if the product contains trace amounts of the substance. She said she encourages her patients to consult with their medical providers, and to research their CBD products and vendors carefully, particularly if they are, like many New Mexicans, struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s not a panacea . . . We have to make sure we don’t exploit the power of suggestion and the placebo effect,” she said. “If someone is spending $50 on a product today, what are they not spending that on $50 on tomorrow?”

A ‘game changer’

In June, the federal government issued a decision Galbiati described as “the biggest game changer in the industry”: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Epidiolex, an oral CBD solution used to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. It is the first prescription drug made from marijuana ever approved by the agency, though the FDA has previously given approval to drugs that contain synthetic versions of THC.

CBD oils for sale at Nature’s Secret. According to the World Health Organization, CBD is an effective treatment for epilepsy. There is “considerably less advanced” research on other therapeutic applications. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Marijuana advocates believe the decision makes an intergovernmental showdown over the legality of cannabis products increasingly likely, a showdown they believe could be decided in their favor. Though nine states have legalized recreational use of marijuana and another 31 states have medical marijuana programs, CBD and other cannabis products – with the exception of Epidiolex – remain illegal under federal law.

“When this gets resolved, it’s going to mean a lot of good things for job creation, economic development and patient care in New Mexico and the rest of the country,” said Galbiati.

The legal issues are complicated within New Mexico as well. A few weeks before the approval of Epidiolex, the state’s Department of Health sent a letter to New Mexico’s licensed producers and dispensaries warning against selling CBD products made from plants grown outside of the state. The department argued those sales were a violation of the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, the 2007 law that created the state’s medical marijuana program. Under that legislation, any licensed producer who “obtains or transports cannabis outside New Mexico” is in violation of federal law and could be prosecuted by the state.

An individual trims freshly-harvested cannabis at the Verdes Foundation. CBD can be made from both hemp and marijuana plants. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

In a letter to the Health Department, the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce contended that interpreting the law in that manner would lead to a severe shortage of CBD, as the limited number of plants they are permitted by the state “makes it impossible . . . to be self-reliant in producing sufficient quantities of CBD.” Others complained that the warning unfairly targeted licensed entities, because it was not sent to retailers outside the department’s jurisdiction.

A Health Department spokesman told the Journal that the agency’s position on the issue remains unchanged.

Back at Nature’s Secret, Eaton described the New Mexico cannabis community as “a family, not a competition.” With a standard business license, the store continues to serve a diverse clientele, which she said includes military personnel, the parent of a young child with a seizure disorder, and people looking to calm their pets during a long car ride. Eaton said the store is rigorous about the quality of their inventory, is careful to not describe possible effects in terms of “cures”, and refers customers to licensed dispensaries as appropriate.

“We’re here to educate people, to help them learn more about their health,” she said. “Retail is not the most important thing we do.”