STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Adam Knapp was 20 when he fractured his neck mountain biking on Mount Werner. Fourteen years later, he still suffers from chronic pain.
To assuage the constant aches in his neck, Knapp said he used to rely on a heavy regimen of anti-inflammatories like Advil. He worried about the damage to his liver that such medications can cause, but life without them was unbearable.
Then a year ago, his mother recommended he try a cannabidiol salve. Cannabidiol, better known as CBD, is one of the main compounds in cannabis. Unlike its more famous cousin, THC, CBD is not psychoactive. It doesn’t get people high.
Knapp rubbed the salve over the fragile part of his neck. Within minutes, he felt relief.
“I couldn’t believe how effective it was,” he said.
For natural health proponents, CBD has been touted as the newest “it” drug. People say CBD can treat a plethora of ailments: chronic pain, epilepsy, insomnia, acne, depression and even cancer.
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“It’s not a narcotic, it’s all natural, and it works,” Knapp said. “It’s a miracle to me.”
At a time when an opioid epidemic has afflicted hundreds of thousands of Americans, even conservatives have been seeking more natural, alternative medicines.
Hemp, one of plants that produces CBD, was federally illegal just two months ago. A new bill passed by Congress in December legalizes the plant nationwide. That has caused a surging interest in an already booming industry.
After seeing firsthand the benefits of CBD, Knapp founded Pure Naturals a year ago to sell a variety of CBD-infused products to potential new markets in the South. The company operates in Memphis, Tennessee, but sources its CBD oil from a facility in Denver.
Tennessee has some of the strictest cannabis laws in the state. Even medicinal marijuana is not legal, but it does allow the production and sale of some hemp and CBD products.
Knapp founded Pure Naturals with Steven Medlock, who operated a law firm in Memphis before joining the hemp industry. They planted a hemp crop in Tennessee that they plan to sell as smokeable CBD joints. They still won’t get people high.
Medlock said that marketing CBD products in a more conservative state requires extra precautions. The cannabis flower that CBD comes from looks similar to THC buds that people buy in recreational marijuana dispensaries. In a state like Tennessee, he worries that law enforcement will have a hard time distinguishing legal hemp from illegal marijuana.
Medlock has had to educate people who have trouble differentiating the therapeutic effects of CBD from the stoned, munchy-inducing effects people associate with THC.
To overcome that stigma, Pure Naturals has tried to market its products as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical medications. The company’s website emphasizes the “purity” of the products and explains that the CBD comes from organic, non-GMO hemp.
The FDA has not approved the medicinal benefits attributed to CBD products, so Knapp has had to rely on consumer testimonials that are also posted on the company’s website.
After Medlock turned his mother onto the CBD products, she started handing out samples to her friends.
That included the members of Tennessee’s Republican Women of Purpose, a political club that she presides over as president. Medlock said they have become some of Pure Natural’s most loyal customers, which has done a lot to help business.
“In a place like Tennessee, to have old, white women endorse your products — that’s about as good as it gets,” Medlock said.
That points to a larger trend of Southern states supporting hemp production to ramp up agriculture. The hemp industry has seen major growth nationwide in recent years. CBD sales grew by almost 40 percent in 2017 according to a report by the New Frontier Data, an organization that studies cannabis markets.
Southern lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, championed the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp as a panacea for plummeting crop prices in the region.
“I get a call from a farmer every other day. More and more farmers want to grow it,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), an architect of the 2018 Farm Bill, told the Washington Post.
Even though growing hemp is now allowed in all 50 states, many legal gray areas remain. Corey Coxis an attorney with the Vicente Sederberg law firm that specializes in marijuana and hemp issues.
“There is still widespread legal ambiguity, and that continues to be an issue facing many businesses,” he said.
He said states like Tennessee that did not legalize marijuana must now face the task of developing new regulations to monitor hemp production.
Fortunately for Colorado, it was one of the first states to legalize marijuana back in 2012 and already has a major industrial hemp industry as well as the country’s first U.S.-bred, certified hemp seed.
“I think Colorado has one of the most robust regulatory regimens in place,” Cox said. “That level of regulation puts safety checks in place and protects public health more than in other states where hemp and CBD are much less regulated.”
That legal ambiguity hasn’t stopped a variety of major companies, even Coca Cola, from exploring ways to incorporate CBD into their products.
Routt County currently has six groups registered to grow hemp under the Colorado Department of Agriculture. One of those, Hayden Industrial Hemp, has faced not legal troubles but environmental ones. The company planted its first outdoor crop in the summer of 2018, but the region’s short growing season and an early frost stunted the harvest.
John Emery, an owner of the company, said that a hemp crop isn’t viable here amid increasing competition from more fertile areas of the country.
“It’s like with any kind of agriculture,” he said. “Better environments produce better harvests.”
Medlock said he does fear how the new farm bill will entice larger corporations to dominate the hemp industry. With eyes to the future, he sees a solution in marketing Pure Naturals to a smaller, niche market. He envisions Pure Naturals as a microbrewery of CBD.
For Knapp, he just appreciates that he can manage his pain without relying on over-the-counter medications.
“CBD has allowed me to live a fuller life,” he said.