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As CBD market booms, Minnesota regulators try to catch up

While CBD products — made with cannabidiol, a compound extracted from cannabis plants — are popular, their sale isn’t necessarily legal in Minnesota, though that will soon change. 

CBD products
CBD products for sale at the Kowalski's on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

 All of a sudden, it’s everywhere: There are CBD salves in malls, CBD gummies in supermarkets and CBD dog treats in pet shops.

While such products — made with cannabidiol, a compound extracted from cannabis plants — are popular, their sale isn’t necessarily legal in Minnesota: The market operates in a gray area that’s caused confusion for consumers, medical professionals and law enforcement.

That will soon change, when a Minnesota law takes effect legalizing the sale of CBD products and imposing quality controls while explicitly limiting the scope of advertising claims. 

Now illegal(ish) in Minnesota

The recent explosion of CBD products on store shelves is the result of loosened state and federal restrictions on growing hemp, a strain of cannabis plant that contains low levels of THC, the compound in marijuana that gets people high. 

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Some took the removal of products derived from hemp from controlled substance laws as an indication that selling CBD is legal in Minnesota. Officials at the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy say it’s not, even if hemp isn’t the primary issue. It’s the marketing of the products for medical purposes that violates state law, though retailers probably shouldn’t be worried about police raids. In an April newsletter, the board lamented that so many businesses are selling the products that it would be extremely difficult to take action against all of them — especially ones that are outside Minnesota and sell CBD products online.

CDB is a pharmacologically active substance affects the central nervous system, said Cody Wiberg, the executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. Like Prozac, a drug commonly prescribed for depression and anxiety, it affects serotonin receptors in the brain, which is why it might be effective in treating those conditions and others.

CBD products
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
A Como neighborhood tobacco shop promoting CBD products in Minneapolis.
While CBD may be effective in treating a host of medical issues, its efficacy in doing so has been studied very little in the U.S. The only FDA-approved use of CBD is Epidiolex, a drug approved last year that treats rare forms of epilepsy in children.

That hasn’t stopped some CBD companies from claiming or implying that their products treat everything from anxiety to Alzheimer’s, however. 

That’s a problem, as far as the state is concerned; it classifies anything used to prevent, treat or cure a disease as a drug. And while CBD products are generally sold with the understanding that they treat medical conditions, they are not approved by the FDA. That makes them “misbranded or adulterated” drugs, Wiberg said, the selling of which is a misdemeanor under Minnesota law.

And because CBD products aren’t regulated by the FDA, there’s not necessarily anyone checking to make sure consumers are getting what they pay for. When the Department of Agriculture was asked to test some of the products on the market by law enforcement agencies, it found that some of the products contained less CBD than advertised, Wiberg said. 

“They found there were products that, for example, (advertised) 15 percent CBD that only contained 7 percent. There were products that had no CBD at all,” Wiberg said. Two studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association had similar findings. 

Furthermore, hemp plants can absorb high levels of heavy metals, fertilizers and pesticides. 

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In January, the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy detailed its concerns with CBD products sold in the state, issuing a report that cited ads for CBD cigars, a CBD “relaxation syrup,” and specific CBD treatment regimens found in stores. 

New rules

In its report, the board suggested legislation that would require CBD products to meet testing and labeling requirements to be legally sold, recommendations that were eventually included in a bill that passed the Minnesota Legislature at the end of the 2019 session. 

Come January, CBD products will be legal in Minnesota as long as they meet certain labeling and testing requirements. Labels will have to state the name and contact information for the manufacturer. They must also include the name and contact information of a third-party lab that has tested the product to make sure it contains the amount of CBD the label says it does; that it has no more than 0.3 percent THC; and that it has no more than trace amounts of heavy metals, pesticides and fertilizers. Products won’t be able to make claims to treat diseases, unless those treatments have been FDA-approved, and labels will have to say the product has not been evaluated by the FDA.

CBD products
Minnesota Board of Pharmacy
Some CBD products make claims that are not backed by the Food and Drug Administration. Claims such as the inclusion of medical grade hemp or the offer of complete relaxation.
If products don’t meet these standards, they will be considered misbranded or adulterated drugs, and the new rules specify the Board of Pharmacy has the authority to prohibit businesses from selling them and remove them from stores. 

Wiberg says the standards are important because the products are out there and customers should know what they’re getting. “We know that a lot of people use the product,” he said. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of people benefiting from it, but we don’t think they can rely on the consistency of the products.” 

Retailers concerns

Steven Brown is the CEO of Nothing But Hemp, a chain of 11 CBD stores in Minnesota, Florida and Nevada and founder of the Minnesota Hemp Association.

He says his stores sell products that do not make claims about treating medical conditions, but he’s heard plenty of success stories from customers, including diminished anxiety and lessened pain, as a result of using CBD products. “A lot of people come into our shops who have expressed that pain — arthritis-related pain — is no longer as bad as it used to be because of taking CBD oil,” he said. 

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Brown says he agrees with the regulations when it comes to transparency and safety aspects, but he’s concerned about some of the specifics. He said it’s not clear to CBD companies how their products will be tested for CBD content — and whether natural variance will be accounted for in the process.

“If I sent my 500 milligram tincture to (one lab and then another), you’re going to get a different result,” he said. “There’s no universal testing measurements yet in this industry and that, to me, is really scary.”

Joe Radinovich, the executive director of the Minnesota Hemp Association, had similar concerns when it came to detecting amounts of pollutants in CBD products. The law says they can’t contain more than trace amounts of them, but doesn’t define what trace is. “That’s a little ambiguous and make good-faith efforts to comply a little bit more difficult,” he said. 

Nevertheless, he said the industry is new and quickly evolving, and he hopes there are opportunities to address things like this in the future.

Brown advises consumers to do due diligence when they buy CBD, asking for lab reports and making sure labs are legitimate.“We probably get 15 vendors that contact us a week, always trying to sell us stuff. They send us fake lab reports all the time. It really is the Wild West out there, and I just think it’s important that consumers are educated and they purchase CBD from a reputable place,” he said.