Under a green-cross logo, the Hemp Farmacy opened last week in Raleigh, offering up-to-date fruit snacks, caramel chews and drops for under your tongue — all of them containing CBD, one of the molecules that makes up cannabis.
Unlike THC, its counterculture cousin, CBD offers no opportunity to get high, so the Hillsborough Street store doesn’t display any Bob Marley posters or psychedelic tapestries. Rather, Hemp Farmacy resembles the stripped-down waiting room of a walk-in clinic, and its management describes the core customers as trending toward women older than 45, troubled by insomnia or arthritis.
Inside, customers sit in cubicles and choose from CBD in edible, topical and smokeable forms: gummies, honey jars and teas. The staff consultants explain the chemistry behind their products in detail, sprinkling technical terms such as “decarboxylation” and “FAAH enzymes” into the sales pitch. Products here range in price from $40 to more than $100.
This is no head shop.
“We’re not sitting on the couch covered in Cheeto dust,” said Chelsea Wetherell, Hemp Farmacy’s marketing director. “We’re promoting a healthy lifestyle. Not that I have anything against Cheetos.”
Within the last few months, retail hemp stores selling CBD products exclusively have popped up all over the Triangle: Forever Hemp on Fayetteville Road as well as The Hemp Store on Old Milburnie Road and in Wake Forest, adding to its statewide presence stretching from Wilmington to Asheboro to Asheville.
Dozens of other locations carry it as a side item. Hemp seed is listed as an ingredient in the smoothies at the popular downtown juice bar Raleigh Raw. At the end of August, Raleigh will host the Carolina Hemp Festival at the Marriott Crabtree Valley hotel, an event advertising more than 100 exhibits.
The stores’ quick rise is comparable to the recent explosion of vaping shops, many of which also carry CBD products, and seeks to capitalize on the recent legalization of non-psychoactive hemp products.
Devotees have cropped up as quickly as the stores. A customer at Forever Hemp on the Raleigh-Garner line said he began taking CBD drops about a month ago for chronic pain in his knees and back. Within a week, the pain eased.
“I noticed I was able to slack off on the pain medication I was taking,” said Donnie Baker, 39, of Benson. He felt no side effects “other than being able to sleep at night.”
The challenge: It’s not weed
A major objective for these stores is explaining the science behind cannabis and removing the stigma applied to a plant best known for euphoria. At Hemp Farmacy and other stores, the staffs hope that sampling CBDs as a pain reliever or a sleep aid will help ease generations of prejudice, which is why employees at hemp shops talk in such clinical terms they sound like graduate students in botany.
In some cases, CBD can show up on a drug test because of trace amounts of THC— not enough to create anything approximating a “high,” according to a 2017 column from Durham-based People’s Pharmacy columnist Terry Graedon.
It shouldn’t happen, but consider decaf coffee, which can still deliver a jolt depending on how diligently the caffeine has been extracted.
But so far, the stores report heavy interest in a state known for its comparatively restrictive attitude toward cannabis. At Forever Hemp, owner Sara Buchanan reports attracting a gamut of customers, from cancer patients to parents with agitated kids.
“I’ve gotten nothing but positive responses,” Buchanan said. “One lady had rheumatoid arthritis, and after a week of taking the drops, she said she was 100 percent better.”
History and rules
Cannabis as a fabric and an herbal medicine can be traced to the ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans, but it wandered into the Western hemisphere for its use as a fiber, turning up on colonial plantations as hemp in the 18th century. George Washington was an avid hemp grower, as noted in his diaries, mainly for ropes, canvas and fish nets.
But the ancients also discovered its psychoactive properties. By the 1930s in the United States, politicians combined fear of the pathway to harder drugs and racist associations with Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians to fuel a frenzy many writers attribute to its ban in 1937.
Attitudes have since shifted in much of the country, enough that 30 states allow medical marijuana and nine permit recreational use, notably Colorado.
But a large distinction can be drawn between the two molecules that make up cannabis. One of them, THC, has mind-altering properties while the other, CBD, does not.
In 2016, North Carolina began allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which by definition includes cannabis plants containing less than .3 percent THC, including the seeds and flour derived from them. Getting high from industrial hemp, Kinston farmer Lee Edwards told the News & Observer in 2015, would require smoking a joint the size of a telephone pole.
Since then, hundreds of farmers have joined a state program allowing them to grow industrial hemp and sell it to processors to turn into retail products.
By June this year, 328 people had gotten a license under NC’s pilot program, allowing them to grow hemp on nearly 5,000 acres of farmland and up to 1 million square feet of greenhouse space. The state issued another 80 licenses allowing businesses to buy and turn the hemp into retail products.
“We carry everything a dispensary in Colorado would,” said Joe Lupton, central regional manager for Hemp Farmacy, adding, “Just the CBD products.”
Its legality, though, remains hazy. Despite apparent clearance from federal courts and a recent Farm Bill, the DEA has not gotten on board. Though it has not embraced hemp, it has not backed up its raised eyebrow with any enforcement.
What’s on the shelf
When customers stop at Hemp Farmacy near downtown, a sign cautions that they must be 18 to shop. None of the CBD products are on display in the outer waiting room, but instead behind a door where staff waits to meet with them inside cubicles, face-to-face. Only seven customers can shop at a time.
Lupton started in Hemp Farmacy’s Wilmington home base before branching out to Raleigh, a new location he said was chosen by customer demand. Like all the employees, he prides himself on his ability to educate with chemical detail unavailable in a head shop.
“It’s very easy to get misinformation based on something on the Internet,” he said. “Here, you get one-on-one consultation.”
He shows off the topicals, such as CBD-infused gel from Blue Ridge Hemp Co. in Asheville, good for muscle pain and inflammation: $49.99 for a 2-ounce jar.
“If you had arthritis,” he said, “a topical would be good for that.”
Then there is Carolina’s Hope, a hemp extract with 500 ml of cannabinoids inside, which comes in a dropper bottle and costs between $39.99 and $199.99, depending on the potency.
Finally, the edibles, most notably Giraffe Nuts, the caramels with 15 mg of CBD per piece, costing $24.99 for a bag of 10.
In June, the FDA issued a statement endorsing CBD as treatment for seizures among children with epilepsy. In a news release, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called it an “important medical advance” but added a caveat:
“This is the approval of one specific CBD medication for a specific use. And it was based on well-controlled clinical trials evaluating the use of this compound in the treatment of a specific condition. Moreover, this is a purified form of CBD. It’s being delivered to patients in a reliable dosage form and through a reproducible route of delivery to ensure that patients derive the anticipated benefits. This is how sound medical science is advanced.”
In the store on Hillsborough Street, one of Raleigh’s oldest and most heavily traveled roads, Lupton said Hemp Farmacy opened without any fanfare. Still, the customers came. In coming weeks, he said, when the store holds its official grand opening with Chamber of Commerce backing, he said, the demand will only increase.