As demand for CBD products spikes, businesses grow and the state looks to regulate
NORTH KINGSTOWN — Dawson Hodgson is making hemp while the sun shines.
On a bright and breezy afternoon with several more bluebird days expected, he stands amid his 65 acres of hemp bushes — some of the 70,000 plants already cut and drying at his feet — and feels weeks of anxiety lifting.
“If the weather stays like this we should be in good shape,” he says, cinching on his stained gloves, sticky with hemp pitch. “I didn’t sleep the other night after we left some drying in the field and it rained. I didn’t know what condition it would be in in the morning.”
Rhode Island’s first harvest in at least 50 years of CBD-rich hemp is coming in, bringing with it lessons for growers, a pungent skunk-like aroma that’s annoying some neighbors, and plans for new regulations across the retail landscape for sellers of CBD products.
Unlike its cannabis cousin marijuana, hemp has virtually no THC, the psychotropic component. The plant’s renewed popularity comes from another compound, CBD, short for cannabidiol, now being used to reduce pain, insomnia and just about anything else that ails you, if you believe all the marketing claims.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has called for more research into hemp’s medicinal potential and health effects, the CBD market isn’t waiting.
Interest in hemp-growing and CBD oil extraction exploded last year after Congress removed hemp from the list of controlled substances. Brightfield Group, a research firm that tracks the cannabis industry, says the hemp-derived CBD retail market is projected to reach $20 billion by 2022.
This spring Hodgson, who is 41, jumped in to that burgeoning market.
The president of Sodco turf farm bought two coffee-can size containers of hemp seeds from an Oregon company for $70,000 and soon became Rhode Island’s first hemp farmer in decades.
(The Department of Business Regulation subsequently issued licenses to three other, smaller growers.)
“It’s been very exciting to be on the leading edge of growing this new agricultural product,” he says, “but it’s also been nerve-racking.”
Most of what Hodgson knew about hemp at the time he gleaned from online research. But Sodco is a big company — a farm with more than 500 acres — with generations of experience growing diverse crops.
With that practical knowledge and confidence in hand, his crew started the seeds indoors in May and then moved the seedlings outside in June.
“The growing was flawless, really,” Hodgson says, thanks to favorable weather conditions. He only had to water his crop once. Nature did the rest.
By this week his rows of hemp bushes resembled thousands of stubby Christmas trees, ranging in height from 3 feet to 6 feet.
The jagged green and yellow leaves, thin like a willow’s, fluttered in the breeze from limbs crowned by large, pine-cone sized “buds” that, had they any THC in them, would be the envy of any marijuana user.
Trial and error has marked the ongoing weeks of harvesting.
Hodgson invested in a hemp harvesting machine that cut the thick stocks at the ground and lifted the bushes onto a conveyor belt before dropping them into a bin.
But while the harvester worked well with the shorter bushes, the top-heavy taller ones toppled off the conveyor belt and jammed up the machine.
He resorted to having field workers cut the bushes by hand with gas-powered cutters.
Then came experiments in the critical step of drying the hemp.
Hemp has a moisture content of about 94% when growing. That must be reduced to about 12% before it can be stored safely without the threat of spontaneous combustion, much as hay must first be dried before it is stacked away.
Initially Hodgson bailed the cut hemp bushes, then unfurled the 4-foot-by-4-foot rolls on a turf field to dry. But he found the plants actually absorbed moisture from the grass.
So now field workers cut the bushes and allow them to dry in the field for several days, flipping them occasionally, before bailing them up and trucking them to the farm’s hemp-drying machine.
There, eight bails at a time stand under the 110-degree heaters for about 12 hours until they reach that 12% moisture level.
“We are much like pioneers here with all sorts of growing pains,” says Hodgson. “It’s all new with new headaches. But that’s farming. You are always going to have problems. You fix them or you’re done.”
Eighteen miles north at The CBD Store on busy Post Road, in Warwick, Jim Ditzel presents his credit card at the cash register for his $181 purchase of CBD oils and creams and shares the wonder of his new pain-relief discovery.
“I can’t believe it. I’m blown away,” says Ditzel, 40, who’s a partner at a financial services company in Boston. “I’m like ready to buy a store.”
“For 14 years I’ve been in pain” after he injured his back in an escalator fall. “I’m not one to take pain meds because I feel there is so much addictive stuff out there, and I’ve never done any marijuana in my life.”
Last month he stopped here for the first time. “This guy starts rubbing stuff on my back and putting stuff in my month and I’m like, happier than I’ve been in a long time.”
“I don’t get it, I’m a skeptical person, but this stuff is working for me.”
Despite such anecdotal testimonies, health insurance companies won’t cover the cost of CBD oil since it is not approved by the FDA.
(Last April, the FDA issued a public warning that some CBD marketing companies were making false claims about the compound’s ability to treat diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.)
Though his CBD purchases aren’t covered by insurance, Ditzel says the out-of-pocket expense is worth it: “If I can spend $200 a month and feel like this, I’m going to do it.”
Mike Lanoue, who opened The CBD Store in April, says his products are superior to those ubiquitous CBD items being sold in liquor stores and gas stations that often lack proper labeling and have been found to carry heavy metals like lead and arsenic.
His products, he says, come from an established Colorado company, CanameD, which tests all its products for impurities and additives and has a high concentration of CBD.
CanameD products also come with a QR code on each container that customers can scan with their phone to view the product’s actual lab tests, he says.
Earlier this year state lawmakers passed legislation requiring the state Department of Business Regulation, along with the Department of Health, to draft regulations for the sale of all CBD products.
Regulators are concerned that in this CBD craze, consumers are protected, says Matthew Sheaff, spokesman with the state Commerce Department.
“All consumable CBD products sold in the state will need to comply with these regulations and the state’s industrial hemp act regardless of where they are manufactured or sourced from,” says Sheaff.
Not only will CBD products have to be properly packaged and labeled to meet food, health and safety requirements, but regulations may also include laboratory testing of actual CBD products.
That testing would be to ensure hemp sold in Rhode Island — like medical marijuana — is free of mold, microbials, pesticides, heavy metals and other contaminants.
Regulators say they may also consider that users can smoke or vape hemp to ingest CBD and what labeling warnings that may require.
But regulations are still months away from adoption, since lawmakers required in the legislation that they themselves must approve the regulations, and the General Assembly won’t meet again until January.
Lanoue is all in favor of tight regulations.
“I feel regulation is extremely important because it’s going to require compliance,” he says. “You have to have your products tested. If they haven’t been tested you shouldn’t be putting them on the shelf. At this point right now you can take any product, put it on the shelf and sell it legally as CBD because there are no regulations.”
Before Dawson Hodgson’s hemp can find its way to any consumer shelves, he’ll need to sell his dried plants to a company capable of extracting the CBD oil from its leaves and flowers.
(The stalks and branches have historically been used for industrial purposes such as textiles, paper and construction material. And Hodgson says that may prove a secondary market worth exploring.)
In January, one Warwick company, American Standard Hemp, purchased a license to handle and extract CBD. But it stopped accepting hemp product months ago and has since been sold.
Hodgson isn’t worried about finding a buyer; more than six out-of-state companies have approached him about buying his hemp.
“The biggest challenge is to understand what the mature marketplace is going to look like; how is mainstream commerce going to adopt to this new agricultural product.”
Right now the market is good, with demand high and the number of growers like him, few. That could change if more growers jump in and the price of CBD hemp falls.
“The American consumer is asking for CBD,” Hodgson says, “and if the American consumer wants it we feel we are best positioned to provide it in an efficient, environmentally responsible and ethical way.”
What might he do differently next spring?
Stagger the seedling planting, he says.
Getting 70,000 seedlings in the ground at once proved an unnecessary burden.
On Twitter: @mooneyprojo