Photo: Paul Buckowski, Albany Times Union
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COLONIE — If you plan to buy any CBD products from Erika Fallon’s pharmacy on Route 7, she wants you to stop and ask her a few things first.
“Has this been third-party tested? Do you have proof? Can I see it?” she says.
Those three questions, she and others say, are important as the industry around CBD or cannabidiol — an active ingredient in hemp and marijuana plants that, unlike THC, doesn’t get you high — continues to skyrocket, attracting unscrupulous players whose interest in making a buck overrides concern for product transparency and consumer safety.
While it’s marketed as a health and wellness product capable of relieving anxiety, stress, pain and insomnia, CBD remains largely unregulated on both a federal and local level. And growers and processors say the few regulations that do exist are confusing and, often, conflicting.
In New York, hemp farmers and processors have teamed up with lawmakers in hopes of clarifying rules around the nascent but fast-growing industry. In the meantime, some retailers are trying to get the word out to consumers about ways to stay smart and safe when trying the buzzy new product.
Jumping into the fray
Miller Young decided to start carrying CBD products in his Averill Park pharmacy six months ago, after repeated requests from patients looking to try the compound reputed to ease pain and other ills.
But as a licensed pharmacist, he had concerns.
“We’ve heard horror stories about people buying stuff online and it’s really just gummy bears with nothing in it,” said Young, owner of Young’s Pharmacy and General Store. “So we really wanted to tread carefully and choose a wholesaler that was reputable.”
He landed on Green Roads, a Florida company that sells pharmacist-formulated products and contracts with a third-party laboratory to test all its products for correct dosage, pesticides, microbials, heavy metals, toxins and other contaminants.
If those things sound concerning, they should. In the last four years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued dozens of warning letters to CBD companies selling mislabeled, falsely advertised, adulterated and contaminated products.
In Salt Lake City in 2017, for example, an emergency room was inundated with young patients who had ingested a product labeled “Yolo CBD” that was later found to contain a dangerous synthetic cannabinoid that caused seizures, agitation and loss of consciousness.
Such extreme cases are why Fallon, the supervising pharmacist at Fallon Wellness Pharmacy in Latham, urges the CBD-curious to demand accountability from retailers. Any reputable seller of CBD products will have a “Certificate of Analysis” detailing third-party lab testing results for those products, she says.
Today, products can range anywhere from lotions, oils and bath bombs to honeys, syrups and even dog treats.
“The reports are a little technical looking for a layperson to look at,” she said. “But I think simply asking that question of a retailer will help reassure you. You can come into my store right now and ask and I’m happy to show you.”
Where you buy matters
Where you buy the product also matters, experts say. Pharmacies, health food stores and places with a history of sourcing reputable, quality ingredients are your best shot, they note.
“Don’t buy it from a vape shop or a video store or a gas station,” said Allan Gandelman, a farmer in Cortland who founded the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association.
“Buy it from a local health food store or co-op, somewhere that has a staff that is educated and can talk to you about the product,” he added.
This is especially important if you’re on any medications, pharmacists say. If you are, you should consider buying CBD from a pharmacy where the pharmacist on staff can explain potential interactions, they say.
Additionally, it’s wise to be wary of products marketed and sold online. A 2017 study found that more than two-thirds of the CBD products purchased online were mislabeled, containing higher or lower levels of CBD than advertised, or none at all.
Franesa Pyle, owner of Saratoga Botanicals, an organic spa and salon that carries New York and Vermont-made CBD products, says consumers should also look into company manufacturing processes.
“Are they using good manufacturing practices? Are they sourcing ingredients by industry standard? Each and every ingredient should have a (Certificate of Analysis) documentation. Each and every batch should have a batch number associated with it. These are all important questions.”
A better way
If this seems like a lot for the average consumer to keep track of, it is. It’s also why Gandelman is advocating for passage of legislation in New York that would mandate QR codes on all CBD products sold in the state.
His CBD company, Head + Heal, currently uses the scannable barcodes on all its products. Anyone with a smartphone can scan the barcode and be directed to a website containing complete laboratory testing results for the product they are considering purchasing.
“Every brand that’s selling in New York should have this level of transparency,” he said. “If a brand is not doing this, I wouldn’t buy their products.”
Gandelman actually started the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association in January to connect hemp farmers and processors with lawmakers in an attempt to bolster testing and transparency requirements in the state.
And he’s found success. Just five months in, his group already represents half of all hemp growers in the state and has helped to draft legislation that would create testing and transparency requirements for CBD and other hemp extracts in the state.
Beefing up regulations
Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, of Binghamton, confirmed Friday that the legislation should be ready for introduction as early as this coming week. In addition to requiring product testing and transparency via this QR code system, it would clarify conflicting regulations around the manufacture and sale of edible CBD products, she said.
Federal and state regulations appear to conflict on this front.
Both the FDA and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets say it’s illegal to add CBD to food and drinks. But as recently as December, the department issued guidance to hemp growers and processors in the state indicating it was OK to sell certain types of edible CBD products.
“It’s a major gray area at the moment because we are trying to be mindful of the FDA but we also recognize that a lot of New York manufacturers want to get their products out there,” Lupardo said.
Gandelman said he hears from local manufacturers all the time who are interested in infusing his CBD extract into their food products, but are confused and scared off by the regulations. In New York City in February, for example, city health inspectors seized thousands of dollars worth of CBD-infused food and drinks from local cafes and restaurants, citing FDA rules.
The FDA has suggested it may reconsider its stance on edibles, and will hold a public forum on the topic May 31 in Maryland.
In the meantime, Gandelman’s company sends its extracts out to manufacturers in Colorado and California, who mix it into food products and sell it back to New York retailers. Retailers, he explained, have less to lose by stocking their shelves with possibly illegal CBD edibles than the manufacturers who put up money to make them.
“New York manufacturers are losing out on a huge market right now because of these unclear regulations,” he said.
The growth and popularity of CBD products has taken its toll on state regulators, Lupardo said.
That’s why she and a handful of other lawmakers are proposing the creation of an Office of Cannabis Management in New York. The office would oversee the state’s adult-use marijuana program (assuming lawmakers agree on one), the state’s medical marijuana program, and the state’s hemp extract industry.
Medical marijuana is currently overseen by the Department of Health, and hemp extract is overseen by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.
“Ag and Markets has a capacity problem,” Lupardo said. “This has exploded in a way they are having difficulty managing. This is an agency that is used to dealing with farmers. Once you get into this idea of CBD for medicinal or dietary use, it makes them nervous. They have no background in that.”