Gummy bears, oils, cocktails, ice cream ... Products with CBD in them have practically become ubiquitous in South Florida. The chemical CBD comes from the cannabis plant and that fact is leaving business owners in a kind of gray zone. But increasingly the federal government is taking notice, while regulations from the state are forthcoming.
For the last year, the Physicians Preferred company had a tent at the University of Miami-Jackson Memorial Hospital campus’ weekly farmer’s market. During their lunch breaks, doctors and other staffers could pass by their stall and purchase CBD -- a cannabis-derived chemical that has been breaking into the mainstream as laws around marijuana and industrial hemp have been relaxed around the country.
But then in March, the company got a call saying the university wouldn’t allow the company to sell CBD products on campus any longer. The company immediately had to stop selling both at the hospital and on the University of Miami’s main Coral Gables campus, where it also used to set up shop once a week.
“They’ve blanket-banned all CBD products,” said Andrew Becerra, a sales rep for Physicians Preferred. He stood in the farmer’s market with a clipboard, gathering signatures for a petition from passing doctors and nurses who previously bought CBD from his tent.
“I don’t know how they weren’t aware of us,” he said of the University. “We’re just trying to get support from our customers to see if they want us to be back here.”
The sudden crackdown on CBD sales on campus illustrates larger questions about how CBD companies operate in Florida. The chemical currently operates in a legal and social gray-zone, increasingly drawing the attention of federal and state regulators, even as the products are entering the mainstream and are freely available to purchase.
CBD-infused products that can be found across the state include gummy bears, oils, skin lotions, soaps, cookies, ice creams, and cocktails.
Several doctors and hospital staffers who signed the petition at UM-Jackson told WLRN that they use CBD products, but the chemical is still too controversial for medical professionals to publicly talk about using it. One emergency room physician said using CBD helped her get over a persistent shoulder pain.
The University of Miami said it was unable to provide anyone to discuss the CBD sales ban.
Despite personal anecdotes about health benefits, there is little in the way of definitive trials and research showing how CBD could have a potential medicinal value. Still, many companies market CBD as helping address health problems ranging from cancer and arthritis to PTSD.
In a March hearing for the U.S, Senate, Federal Drug Administration Director Scott Gottlieb said it could take the agency years to figure out how to properly regulate the chemical. But he said in the meantime the FDA will be using discretion on when to step in and take enforcement actions against CBD companies.
“I will take enforcement action against CBD products on the market if manufacturers are making what I believe are over the line claims,” said Gottlieb. “If you’re marketing CBD and you’re claiming it can cure cancer or alzheimer's disease, we’re going to take action against that because that could lead a patient to forego other effective therapy.”
The following week, on April 2, the FDA announced it is forming a working group to try to figure out how to regulate CBD. In the same announcement, it said that it was sending out warning letters to three CBD companies that have made “egregious and unfounded claims that are aimed at vulnerable populations.”
One of those letters was addressed to PotNetwork Holdings, a Fort Lauderdale company. The FDA letter said PotNetwork Holdings was marketing CBD products in violation of federal laws, since it suggested CBD can be used to treat cancer, artritis, and leukemia, among other health conditions.
PotNetwork Holdings did not respond to requests for comment.
The day following that announcement, WLRN got a tour of the Hollywood-based Dr. Stern’s CBD, a brick and mortar shop on the city’s main strip.
“More and more people are coming in every day to try to learn more about what CBD can do for them,” said manager Paul Fisher. He said sales have been steadily increasing, especially with the elderly population.
When asked about the warning letter sent to a business only a few miles away from the shop and similar claims posted on Dr. Stern’s CBD website, the owner of the business kicked the WLRN reporter out of the store.
In less than 24 hours, sections about CBD helping treat cancer and alzheimer’s disease were removed from the website.
Uncharted territory in Florida
In 2018, Florida voters elected an unabashedly pro-cannabis Commissioner of Agriculture. Democrat Nikki Fried ran on the platform of expanding access to medical marijuana and creating an industrial hemp boom in the state.
But currently, Fried says CBD companies are illegally operating in Florida. Rumors spread by the Florida chapter of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws suggest that Fried will soon be issuing “cease and desist” letters to CBD companies. She dismissed the warnings as “fake news.”
“There has been nothing bought by my office to test, there has been no cease and desist letters sent, none have even been drafted,” said Fried in an interview.
The 2018 federal Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp on the federal level. Yet until state lawmakers pass a Florida hemp bill that would allow her office to create a state program to regulate hemp and CBD, Fried said the products will remain illegal.
“I have been saying from day one, once we create the program there’s going to be rules and regulations, and if you are not following those rules and regulations, then yes -- law enforcement, plus my office would be entitled to come in and say 'you must remove all these products that are not regulated, that are not part of the program, off of the shelves,'” said Fried.
Some companies that are involved in the CBD business are aware that regulations are forthcoming, and they welcome the idea.
“We fully expect for regulations to come and we welcome them. It’s going to allow for a filtration of companies that aren’t doing things correctly,” said Michael Oria, founder of Physicians Preferred, the company that was banned from selling products at the University of Miami. “We’ve taken a number of steps to be ahead of the curve, from our manufacturing facilities to the way we operate. We plan to stay in business, so we take all the necessary precautions.”
The Florida legislature is currently hearing three different bills that would allow her office to start a hemp program and begin the regulation process.
“We already have our team starting to do the drafting, and we’ll be having public hearings and testimony to make sure that this is transparent and open,” said Fried.