Despite former New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski’s announcement that he will now be invested in CBD, not the NFL, the future of that industry is uncertain in Massachusetts, and local business owners are grappling with how to adjust to evolving standards.
Although CBD, or cannabidiol, is a member of the cannabis family, it has no psychoactive properties, meaning it has no known impact on a user’s sobriety when ingested or smoked, according to a June 2018 statement from the Food and Drug Administration. And Gronkowski is not the only one with a vested interest in it. Business owners have been examining the local market for CBD since Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2012 and recreational pot in 2016.
Gronkowski said his father introduced him to CBD as part of his recovery regimen after his retirement from professional football in March.
“He gave me some to try, and I was blown away by how well it worked,” Gronkowski said during a late-August press conference, describing CBDMedic, the brand he has chosen to partner with. “For the first time in more than a decade, I am pain-free. And that is a big deal.”
Since the 2018 Farm Bill distinguished hemp from marijuana, legalizing crop production of hemp, the market for CBD has boomed. In Massachusetts, as elsewhere in the country, it began to appear in retail establishments as a menu item in restaurants (often as an add-in to smoothies or juices) or in the form of infused oils or creams. It has grown increasingly popular in wellness circles for its purported capacity to ease physical and mental ailments. In May, Forbes reported that a new study estimated the CBD industry could earn $20 billion by 2024.
Despite its potential, it has not been smooth sailing for Gronkowski’s new industry of choice. Per FDA regulations, CBD may not be sold as a dietary supplement, and any CBD product making medicinal claims may not be legally sold until it is approved by the agency.
In June, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources instituted a ban on CBD reflecting FDA regulations. The ban came as a surprise to those in the industry in the state, according to Marion McNabb.
McNabb has been dialed in to Massachusetts’ cannabis industry since the state legalized marijuana; in 2018, she co-founded the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network, which researches the benefits of medical and recreational use of cannabis and its byproducts, including CBD. She says she thinks there was little public transparency around the state’s ban.
“It came as a surprise and a shock to many,” McNabb said. In the wake of the ban, she and other industry members founded the Massachusetts Hemp Coalition, which began advocating for Massachusetts farmers, processors, retailers and consumers in the hemp and CBD industry.
“A stop-and-start (ban) can really hurt a small business that doesn’t have a ton of capital — they might have to lay off people, they have to remove inventory,” McNabb said.
“We opened our store eight months ago when CBD was fully legal, poured most of our funds into it, and now we have to take products off the shelf and only sell topicals,” Chris Thistle, chief technical officer of New Bedford-based Growing in Health said in July. “It just isn’t right. We have been trying to make up for the loss in sales by pushing our medical card certification service and also offering CBD massages.”
Lynne Begier, who owns Roastd General Store on Nantucket, had added CBD to the drink menu at her store before the ban. Items like her rose vanilla cardamom CBD latte and chocolate mint CBD mocha had become increasingly popular orders. Begier estimates that a third of the drinks sold at the store, which she says deals in “coffee, tea and wellness” were made with CBD. Business was booming — until the ban.
“The health department came in and said, ‘You can’t (sell) any of that.’ It was pretty much overnight,” Begier said.
According to Jana Ferguson, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the state will leave enforcement of the ban at the local level to respective boards of health.
For some towns, enforcement is still in flux. Bob Canning, health agent for Orleans, began researching the ban after a local vendor approached the town’s health department with questions about the sale of CBD. Canning said he could not confirm whether his department had previously received information about the state ban.
“In researching, we came across information that (CBD) is a banned substance that can’t be added to food,” Canning said. “Since then, we’ve been talking with other health departments to try and find a way we can address it. We haven’t determined the best way yet.”
Thomas McKean, director of inspections for the town of Barnstable’s public health division, says the department has had “at least one” inquiry from a vendor about selling CBD oil. He says his concern is with unspecified standards of regulation for CBD products.
CBDMedic, the company with which Gronkowski has partnered, sells “topical pain and skin care medication,” according to its website. CBDMedic advertises its products as providing temporary relief for “sports-related joint and muscle pain” as well as other conditions, such as arthritis.
The medical implications of the product — which, per FDA guidelines, would be considered a drug because of its intended use to “treat or prevent disease or otherwise affect the functions of the human body” — leave the path unclear for Gronkowski and CBDMedic.
Local businesses have found themselves in similar situations. Many business owners contacted by the Times — some having removed CBD from their menus or shelves, and some still selling the product — declined requests for interviews, citing concern for their businesses and the uncertainty of state and federal regulation of CBD. Others said that was the first they had heard of the ban.
Begier said her customers are “bummed” at the removal of CBD from her menu. She believes that CBD products could be regulated as marijuana products are. Given they meet the health and safety standards, they should be available for retail sale, she said.
“It’s so sad that we’re cutting the legs off of the CBD movement, because (as a state) we want to be a part of it,” Begier said.
And, some retailers are worried these regulations could force them to shut down.
“If we were to get shut down completely, there would be a good amount of families that are going without because we have given our savings to Growing In Health, to see it succeed,” Thistle said, but he’s still hoping for the best.
“We have obtained our Hemp cultivation license and will be pursuing opening a processing facility to manufacture our own products that will be in line with what MDAR and the state of Massachusetts wants,” Thistle explained, “Hopefully in the near future, if all goes according to plan, we will have state compliant products on our shelves and once again be able to help the citizens of New Bedford.”