Hemp Market Grows As Farmers Secure Permits

It’s buyer beware of products labeled to contain CBD in a market that is exploding across the state, the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council warns.

Its president, Geoffrey Whaling, said there are many unscrupulous suppliers who mislabel the homeopathic products that are supposed to contain trace amounts of THC in an industry that has yet to be fully regulated.

“There are a lot of shysters out there,” Whaling said. “The public is unsuspecting.”

His concerns come at a time when Pennsylvania has approved more than 300 permits for farmers to grow hemp, including several in Washington, Fayette and Westmoreland counties, state records show.

The hemp crop had been outlawed 85 years ago during an era of reefer madness. It was reintroduced for research in the Farm Bill of 2014 and removed last year from the federal list of controlled substances.

That led to the mass-production of products containing CBD, or cannabidiol, including gummies, lotions and oils for the treatment of pain and other ailments. They can be found in boutiques, as well as convenience stores such as Sheetz and GetGo, and pharmacies, including Walgreens.

Consumer Reports said in April that about 64 million Americans have tried CBD, or cannabidiol, in the past two years. The compound in marijuana and hemp doesn’t produce a “high” and is most popular among people in their 20s, the survey showed. Most of those who tried CBD said it was helpful, especially to treat anxiety, and others said it helped them to stop using other drugs, including opioids.

Whaling said it has been predicted that the CBD industry will grow to become a multibillion-dollar industry in the country.

However, he said he has concerns about farmers being left with crops they cannot sell if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration places stricter regulations on CBD, a move that could lead to companies that sell the products to walk away from contracts with farms.

“Farmers will be left in the lurch with nothing to do with it,” said Whaling, who also is chairman of the National Hemp Association in Washington, D.C.

The FDA had its first hearing Friday on CBD and all hemp as it drafts regulations for a final ruling that could take three years to create, Whaling said.

The FDA showed Whaling a bottle labeled with a skull and crossbones that sold for $149 a bottle and claimed to cure death. As it turned out, the product contained arsenic, but no CBD. He also was given a product designed to release joint pain in horses that sold for $71 per bottle.

“It was 98 percent glycerine. It had no cannabidiol in it,” Whaling said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture approved 319 permits to grow hemp, an increase of nearly 10 times the number that were issued in 2018 at a time when they were for research only, said Shannon Powers, the department’s press secretary.

Whaling said the states likely will come up with their own CBD regulations before the FDA publishes its ruling.

“We need to do it under a framework for the farmers to get paid,” said Whaling, who has numerous concerns about the industry.

He said hemp farms that are too close to each other could result in cross pollination that would reduce the size of crops. The hemp crops also have the potential to cross pollinate the medical marijuana growing operations and lower the THC levels in that drug.

“We’re pioneers here rekindling a crop that hasn’t been grown in 85 years,” he said.

“Let’s go slow and steady and let’s make sure we get this right.”

Last year farmers grew a total of 85,000 acres of hemp in the entire country. The new permits, including those in other states, are expected to drive that number to “a million-plus acres,” Whaling said.

Other varieties of hemp are grown to produce seed oil or fibers for clothing.

Attempts to reach most farmers with permits in the region were unsuccessful.

One of the farmers in Fayette County doesn’t disagree with Whaling’s concerns.

“We need to get the riffraff out of the industry. We need to get rid of the bad actors,” said the farmer.

He was one of four in Fayette who secured permits to grow hemp, and the only one to agree to be interviewed. He was concerned for security at his fledgling farm, and until that’s in place, asked that his name not be used.

The farmer, who has bulging discs in his back, plans to produce CBD products. He uses CBD himself, and said it’s significantly decreased his pain and improved his sleep.

He said he welcomes public hearings and regulations, hopeful they will make the public feel safer trying products that changed his life.

“I don’t want to see any end user getting spurned by this product by someone who was trying to rush it into production. I feel nothing but optimistic from here. A little regulation will go a long way in helping the industry,” he said.

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