Munchies: CBD in food remains a gray area

The distinctions between food, drugs and medicine can be unclear and overlapping, and the lines separating them are often contrived by human institutions. One such entity is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is now becoming tangled up in the regulation of the CBD products that are the fastest-growing new health food craze. Industrial hemp is now federally legal to grow and process, and we have all seen the resulting influx of CBD products being sold in gas stations, liquor stores and grocery stores, but when it comes to CBD in food products, the regulatory roll-out has been more complicated.

The Hemp Business Journal estimates that the market for hemp-based CBD products will grow from $390 million in 2018 to $1.3 billion by 2022. The majority of CBD products that we see being sold are derived from industrial hemp, which is why there is a difference between the CBD oil you buy in a gas station and the one you purchase at one of our three state medical marijuana dispensaries. Both have little-to-no THC (the psychoactive compound in cannabis), but because hemp-derived CBD products are largely unregulated, there aren’t the same requirements for purity testing and quality control. The federal government permits the transportation of hemp products across state lines as long as they meet a standard of 99.3% purity, meaning there is less than 0.3% THC in the product. However, a 2017 University of Pennsylvania study found that nearly 70% of CBD products sold online either contain more or less of the compound than their labels say. Even though CBD is extremely safe, accurate labeling and dosing is still important, especially for new consumers.

Most hemp-derived CBD products sold in RI were grown and processed elsewhere, but local CBD producers are now starting to hit the ground running. Most notably, SODCO is entering the industrial hemp space, and as experienced growers of potatoes, corn and turf for generations, I think we can expect to see a positive impact on the RI CBD market in the next year or so. As with anything, consumers and businesses should prioritize purchasing CBD products from local producers whenever possible.


So when it comes to food, drugs and medicine, where does CBD land? It depends on who you ask. CBD enthusiasts and those producing and selling it will probably agree that it can be all three – CBD is widely touted for its health benefits, from relieving anxiety and stress to helping with sleep problems and joint pain. It helps bring balance to our endocannabinoid system, which basically just makes us feel better, and it is known to be the safest and most accessible form of cannabis medicine available. So why not ingest it in any form you like, including food and drink?

According to the FDA, which has approved a CBD-derived pharmaceutical for treating seizures called Epidiolex, the distinction between food and drug is clear. The Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act of 1938 prohibits the introduction of approved active ingredients into dietary supplements or food products, so the legality of CBD food and beverage products, or even selling CBD products as health and wellness supplements, remains a gray area where the federal government is concerned. Additionally, state health departments generally have rules prohibiting introducing additives into food and drinks, and there have been several cases where the Health Department has attempted to interfere with local juice bars and coffee shops that are advertising CBD shots as a healthy addition to your favorite beverage.

Despite these uncertainties, you can find CBD-infused beverages at Crazy Burger Cafe & Juice Bar in Narragansett, Kwench Juice Cafe in PVD, and Raw Bob’s Juicery in East Greenwich. Former URI basketball player-turned-CBD entrepreneur Ibn Bakari of Harmless Health has been teaming up with local businesses to bring CBD into the mainstream of food and beverages in Rhode Island through education. One of his partners is the TwoTen Oyster Bar & Grill, which now features CBD-infused cocktails on its menu.

As is typical with cannabis-related regulations, state policies vary widely, and some states, like Rhode Island, are still figuring out how to deal with CBD when it comes to food. Some states (NY, CA and ME) have chosen to ban the use of CBD in food products, while in Colorado all parts of the hemp plant can be added to food. Either way, if local businesses are interested in marketing CBD products, they need to be careful of the language they use, as the FDA has sent numerous warning letters to companies for making health claims without federal approval. We also need to make sure that our state regulations are crafted in a way that benefits consumers, producers and businesses alike. The governor’s recent budget article proposes limiting CBD product sales to only those over 21, and also imposes an 80% wholesale tax on CBD, which would surely have a negative impact on small local businesses interested in earning their share of the CBD pie. Just some food for thought…