Edibles containing the non-psychoactive compound CBD, like these chocolates from the Westbrook company Clearly Edibles, now can't be sold to people without a medical marijuana card. 

Despite its popularity, touted health benefits, and presence in dozens of shops around Maine, the state has begun the crack down on food products made with the cannabis and hemp extract cannabidiol, or CBD.

Last week officials with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services sent a total of nine letters to business owners in Maine instructing them that it's now illegal to sell edibles that contain CBD to customers who aren't medical marijuana patients. According to Emily Spencer, the director of communications for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, if licensees who are notified of the prohibition are found to still be selling CBD edibles after 10 days, they can be subject to fines of $100. 

This effort to conform to federal law angered and confused many in the industry. 

On Tuesday, about a 100 people rallied at the State House in Augusta to protest the decision, arguing that small business owners, hemp farmers, and consumers who rely on CBD to treat pain and other health issues are all severely impacted by the sudden prohibition.

“I’m diabetic, I have fibromyalgia and I’m a double amputee,” said John Gillis, a Dexter resident. “There are days when my pain level is at a point where I can’t function, if it wasn’t for CBD. I’ve been prescribed opiates but I refuse to take them. CBD is completely safe for me. I need this stuff.”

According to Dawson Julia, the owner of a CBD store in Unity, last year’s passage of the 2018 Farm Act initiated this crackdown — its legalization of hemp (which along with cannabis also contains CBD) sparked concerns within the DHHS about the legality of CBD in mass marketed foods. Julia — who was the main organizer of action at the State House — started receiving phone calls from CBD retailers who had been sent letters from the DHHS in late January notifying them that CBD “as a food additive is not considered generally recognized as safe and has been unapproved as a food additive.”

In a phone call with the Phoenix, Julia didn’t mince words about what he thought of the federal government's claims that CBD is “unsafe.”

“It’s completely bullshit,” said Julia. “It’s bought and paid for and sponsored by your local pharmaceutical cartels. Some of the biggest pharmaceutical corporations are using state governments across the country to get an advantage in the marketplace. They want anything that’s a competitor to their synthetic products to go through them.”

According to OpenSecrets, pharmaceutical companies represent the single largest lobbying interest in the U.S., spending $3.9 billion in the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of which have gone in opposition to cannabis legalization efforts.

Julia links this massive amount of spending to an outsized influence on Congress and the FDA. He also argues that big pharma spends so much against cannabis because plant medicine is getting more popular and cutting into the profits of drug companies. 

A 2016 study in the journal Health Affairs found that in the 17 states with medical marijuana laws, prescriptions for painkillers and other synthetic drugs fell dramatically — the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of anti-depressants, and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication. That study also concluded that drug manufacturers were losing $166 million annually in medical marijuana states, and could lose as much as $4 billion if medical marijuana was made legal in all 50 states.

A 2017 survey from HelloMD, a California-based medical cannabis company found that out of 2,400 CBD users, 42 percent gave up on pharmaceuticals.

Maine isn’t the only place trying to curb CBD sales — health officials in both New York and Ohio also recently started restricting the sale of CBD edibles, according to local news in those states.

In addition to organizing Tuesday’s protest, Julia also circulated a petition which called on Gov. Janet Mills to rescind the removal order, but was told by a spokesperson for Mills that there was “no clear legal path to rescind in properly.” After that failed, Julia reached out to Democratic Rep. Craig Hickman, who sits as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture with details on the crackdown, who in turn introduced emergency legislation (L.D. 630) to keep CBD edibles on store shelves.

The House has scheduled a public hearing for that bill on February 19, and it remains the only path forward to reverse the ban on CBD edibles.

“We’re hoping we get our rights back sometime next month,” said Julia. “But to be honest, there are a lot of us in the industry saying ‘screw you’, we’re going to keep using it.”

Gov. Mills's administration hopes to move Rep. Hickman's bill forward as soon as possible, according to a statement released last week. 

“Maine, like many other states, is trying to navigate an unclear legal landscape regarding the commercial sale and use of CBD," wrote a spokesperson for Gov. Mills. "The Administration recognizes the frustration and concern that conforming to these existing laws has caused, and Governor Mills wants to find a path forward."

In the meantime, CBD isn’t disappearing entirely. Under the new rules, it can still be sold in its topical or vapable form, and patients with a medical marijuana card can still purchase CBD edibles. But CBD retailers say their business is still impacted greatly with the sudden restrictions, even if Rep. Hickman’s emergency bill passes.

“I just bought a store in January for CBD with a certified kitchen,” said Jerry Lewis, the owner of a health food store in Newport. “All my business is done until we fix this entire thing.”

CBD can’t get people high, and people mostly consume it for its alleged health benefits like chronic pain relief, reducing inflammation, and treating headaches, nausea and arthritis. Researchers are still studying the effects of CBD, but most agree that it’s least effective in its edible form — doses below 300 mg are found to have zero psychiatric effect, while most edibles contain just 20-30 mg of the compound.

Placebo effect or not, it’s clear that CBD has a big impact on those who consume it. Dennis Meehan, the owner of Summit Medical Marijuana in Gardiner, believes that cannabis and its extracts are the most beneficial natural substances to human health.

“This plant offers hope to so many thousands of people,” said Meehan. “Almost every cell in our body has a cannabinoid receptor. Regulating our access to cellular balance and health is not okay. And this comes from an organization [the DHHS] that approves medications that may cause death or excessive anal leakage.”

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