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The CBD effect: Despite confusion over what it is and what it does, Madison retailers are cashing in

  • 14 min to read
The CBD effect: Despite confusion over what it is and what it does, Madison retailers are cashing in
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Radio host Johnny Danger promotes CBD products sold by a store called Green RX on Solid Rock 94.1. There’s a sign on the Beltline with a familiar leaf advertising “CBD4pain.net.” For $2, the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company will add a CBD infusion to your cocktail. A handful of stores dedicated to selling CBD products have popped up around Madison. Apple Wellness has hired more staff to keep up with demand for its CBD products.

CBD, the commonly used abbreviation for cannabidiol, is a chemical that can be derived from either marijuana or hemp. The products available in Wisconsin won’t make users high, but confusion about what CBD actually does is common.

Jennifer Helmer, like many Madison retailers, answers the same CBD questions from potential buyers at Community Pharmacy several times a day, every day. Is it legal? Does it work? What exactly does it work for? What's a good dose for whatever it works for?

Chelsea Mayton, owner of Wisconsin Cannabis Cultivars, has a license to grow hemp and sells CBD flowers and products. But when she was recently drying and curing the hemp, police showed up with a search warrant after getting complaints about the marijuana-like smell.

Rachel Rykal used to live in Madison and now owns Core Gardens, a cannabis business in the state of Oregon. She recently returned to the area to visit and friends asked why a CBD tincture they purchased tasted so awful. It turns out it wasn’t a tincture at all; they were ingesting straight vape juice.

Even with misinformation, enthusiasm is high. As CBD products sweep the nation, the Madison craze is aided and abetted by local media coverage, word-of-mouth and what proponents say is the plant’s potential to alleviate illness and replace opioids.

And while the hype surrounding superfoods and fad diets generally dies down, sellers are convinced that CBD is here to stay — even if marijuana is someday legalized in the state.

The ABCs of CBD

Consumers can choose their own adventure to consume CBD: buy a tincture and use a dropper to place it under the tongue, smear it on as a lotion, smoke it, vape it, pop a capsule, snack on CBD-infused chocolate or sip CBD-infused alcohol.

Under state law, it must come from hemp and contain less than 0.3 percent THC, which is nowhere near the amount of the psychoactive compound to produce a high.

Sellers say that small amount of THC could be enough to fail a drug test after consuming CBD, but THC-free options are also available.

The legal status of CBD has caused confusion in the midst of changing federal and state legislation.

Under federal law, growing hemp has been illegal since 1970, but the 2014 federal Farm Bill made it possible for states to set up industrial hemp pilot programs. Wisconsin created such a program, administered by Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, in 2017. DATCP granted 320 licenses to grow hemp in the first year of the program, but the law but did not explicitly legalize CBD.

However, the state DATCP and Department of Justice have “taken the position” that the hemp program authorizes production, sale and possession of CBD only if it is produced from hemp grown under the federal program, said Michael Queensland, senior staff attorney at the Wisconsin Legislative Council, at a Wisconsin Health News panel discussion earlier this month.

At that same event, state Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, confessed that he was initially uneasy when first approached about co-authoring the bill to create the program.

“I was in the boat that a lot of people are, I wasn’t educated on what hemp was,” Testin said. “I came to find out that we have a rich history of hemp here in the state of Wisconsin.”

In 1941, the Cap Times reported that Wisconsin grew 75 percent of the commercial hemp in the U.S., much of it used to make “cordage, rope, hand ladders and hawsers” for the Navy during World War II. But hemp was later categorized as a Schedule 1 drug, which, under federal policy, means it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

That changed a few weeks ago when President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, removing hemp from Schedule 1 and opening up production for farmers outside the state pilot programs.

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Mad Ink's CBD joints.

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Mad Ink Glass and Vape sells its own brand of CBD tinctures.

Quickly, widely popular

With the shifting legal tide has come a wave of Madison retailers looking to cash in. Stores like Apple Wellness, Community Pharmacy, Willy Street Co-op, Mad Ink Glass and Vape and Embrace Wellness stock CBD products. Two Green RX stores and Quality CBD on Willy Street opened last year, each specializing in a wide range CBD products. CBD kiosks even popped up at West Towne and East Towne malls.

The Great Dane quickly sold out of its specialty CBD beer and has sold over 5,000 CBD-infused cocktails since launching the products in December, said Ted Peterson, director of operations. Consumers can get it in their coffee at Deja Brew on Commercial Avenue, in their cold brew at the Pickle Jar on Butler Street, in their smoothies at SuperCharge! on East Washington Avenue, or in creams and moroccan oils at Retro Hair Studio on Old Middleton Road.

Tim O’Brien, owner of Apple Wellness, has witnessed fads like turmeric, the Atkins diet, Dr. Oz weight remedies, probiotics and fish oil, but “none of them have had the type of response, explosive national and international response and success rate for such a host of issues and struggles as CBD,” he said.

“We’ve heard and been educated on the benefits of medicinal marijuana. And now there’s a way to get all those benefits without the high. And people are curious,” O’Brien said. “This is something that for hundreds of years we know is incredibly powerful, but has been illegal.”

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Tony Herman opened Quality CBD last summer on Williamson Street.

The Brightfield Group, a national cannabis market research firm, claims the hemp-derived CBD market could climb to $22 billion by 2022, up from almost $600 million in 2018, though other estimates are more modest. It’s hard to know what Wisconsin’s slice will be, as DATCP and the state Department of Revenue don’t track CBD sales and don’t know of any government agency that does. Madison retailers report steadily increasing business.

When Tony Herman opened Quality CBD last summer on Williamson Street  — “kind of known to be the hippie area of town,” he said — he didn’t have a sign and his only advertising was with printed flyers. The store brought in about 50 customers and $1,300 on the first day. He purchased a kilogram of CBD for $10,000 thinking it would last about two months; it lasted two weeks.

CBD has pretty universal appeal, Helmer said. Her customers at Community Pharmacy span ages and classes.

“It’s nuts … I’m seeing 70 year olds, 60 year olds, men, women, young, punk rockers, country people,” said Larry Hanson, owner of Mad Ink Glass and Vape, a store selling its own brand of CBD tinctures on East Washington Avenue. “It’s funny, because as I’ve been working with some of my marketing people ...  and looking at who’s our target demographics, it’s really hard because it’s everybody.”

Aliza Sherman, CEO and co-founder of Ellementa, a social network aiming to better educate women about cannabis, doesn’t think the demographic is truly “everyone.” There are plenty of women who are nervous or confused about CBD, and the first female adopters tend to be those already receptive to alternative medicine like acupuncture or Chinese herbs, she said.

She said women represent the greatest opportunity for growth in the CBD industry because they often buy for their partners, kids and parents.

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Quality CBD on Williamson Street brought in about 50 customers and $1,300 on the first day.

Optimism along with caution

Retailers around Madison, citing potential therapeutic uses, documented benefits or medical benefits, say CBD can help acne, stroke, schizophrenia, obesity, diabetes, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, motion sickness, inflammation, post-traumatic stress disorder, nausea, migraines, cancer and more.

Sellers attribute that variety of benefits to CBD’s effect on the endocannabinoid system, a regulatory system with cannabinoid receptors all over the body, including the nervous, immune and digestive systems, brain, bones and blood vessels.

“That’s why it’s kind of on fire. I’m an herbalist and usually plants get four or five systems, this one’s just happening to hit a lot of systems,” Helmer said.

But O’Brien and other sellers say CBD affects everyone differently, so while the potential is big, there’s no guarantee that a problem under those categories will be fixed with CBD.

Sellers can’t prescribe or diagnose ailments, but they share anecdotes of how CBD has helped customers with chronic pain and anxiety.

When it comes to other ailments, not every seller agrees on what CBD can do. Some retailers casually mentioned what they believe to be CBD’s anticancer properties, but others were more cautious.

“There’s words that I shouldn’t even say, like the big ‘C,’” Helmer said. “I’m not going to say that it does anything for cancer, but I give them information to read. I’m never going to say, ‘Skip a treatment for this.’”

Once CBD users find relief, they sometimes drop their other medicines. A 2017 survey of users found 42 percent stopped taking traditional medications in favor of CBD. 

“We have consistently half a dozen, a dozen testimonies a day of people getting away from their medications. You can see why the drug companies would not really like that,” O’Brien said. “I’m not against the drug companies, per se. I’m not against our medical system. I love our medical system in Madison, I love our doctors and I’m on their team.”

But Dr. Michael Miller, director of the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and Dr. Alaa Abd-Elsayed, medical director of UW Health Pain Services, have separately said the CBD market is getting ahead of itself.

“We’re doing it the opposite way. So people start talking about it, selling it, before creating the evidence that it works and before understanding the long-term efficacy on side effects,” Abd-Elsayed said.

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Abd-Elsayed said about 10 patients ask him about CBD each month. His view is that drugs should be thoroughly studied before being released to the public. A CBD drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Epidiolex, treats a subset of seizures.

“It may be a wonderful placebo. What it actually has been proven to do is treat some rare form of epilepsy. And there’s no proof that it does anything else at all,” Miller said at the Wisconsin Health News panel discussion.

That’s not to say there will be bad side effects or that there aren’t potential benefits, Abd-Elsayed said. We just don't know. The appropriate setting to try a drug with unknown, long-term effects is on a consenting, terminally ill patient, he said.

“This is just too good to be true and there’s no medication before that did all of this,” he said. “That’s why having bigger, organized trials will tell us more.”

But sellers and consumers argue that there are studies in the U.S. and abroad pointing to the value of CBD. And they report limited side effects; literature from Community Pharmacy says the most reported side effect from taking too much is fatigue.

“CBD, when you look at the overarching information, studies, doctor reports, patient reports and anecdotal reports all together, is rapidly becoming the single best healer in the history of humankind. And I can back this up with every kind of study and doctor report you can imagine,” said Jeff Kundert, co-owner of Green RX.

Abd-Elsayed countered that many studies are not rigorous enough, as they may have been conducted on animals or with small sample sizes.

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Various CBD products are on display at GreenRX on Lien Rd.

Media attention

Community Pharmacy started selling CBD a few years ago, before Wisconsin approved a hemp program, citing federal law. Helmer said sales at first were “relatively low” until late in 2017, when reporters started interviewing her about CBD. Those interviews were “kind of sensationalized,” she said.

Sensationalized or not, that coverage “was the spark that started to increase sales,” Helmer said, because it raised awareness.

Last April, then-Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a memo on the “illegality of CBD, and of the dangers non-regulated products sold in stores as pure CBD pose to customers.” After two weeks of confusion about CBD’s legal status, Schimel said farmers in the pilot program could produce CBD oil, and all was right in cannabidiol land once again.

Those two weeks were “terrifying” because “as far as I knew, my whole company was at risk,” O’Brien of Apple Wellness said. But ultimately, that spotlight brought another wave of customers, Helmer said.

The CBD trend has been covered by every outlet from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan to Bon Appetit. In Madison, especially during the confusion last spring, Wisconsin Public Radio, the Wisconsin State Journal, Isthmus and TV outlets tracked the changes.

Dave Knott, owner of Embrace Wellness, said he doesn’t see the popularity of CBD waning after the media hype dies down because of what it can do.

“CBD is so versatile and very well tolerated,” he said.

Word of mouth

There’s a book at Green RX full of handwritten testimonials about how CBD quelled a small anxiety attack, “drastically improved” a dog’s struggle with separation anxiety, cured an injured shoulder to “play the sports I love” and even prevented road rage: “First time it worked in minutes, I was driving, people cutting me off, riding my ass. This kept me calm and keep a clear head and felt relaxed.”

In person, sellers and consumers share their testimonies like conversion stories. 

“I know how it works for me. I’m going to start sharing how it’s working for people who aren’t believers,” said Quality CBD customer Pat Larson at the store on a recent afternoon.

Larson was run over by a forklift on his family’s farm when he was 17. It crushed his pelvis and foot and broke his ribs, he said. The injuries have caused pain and problems for him years later, but he has found some relief from Quality CBD’s tinctures, along with periodic use of Tylenol and Advil.

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Tim Mulligan, shop manager at Mad Ink Glass and Vape, uses CBD to manage chronic pain from a car accident and work accident. 

O’Brien said he “needed my arm twisted” to start selling CBD at Apple Wellness. A teenage pot-smoker, he had a tough time quitting. Once he did, he “wanted nothing to do with that druggie lifestyle,” he said. But then the “testimonies started coming in.”

“The proof is in the pudding,” O’Brien said. “It’s one thing when you hear stories out of Colorado from all the potheads saying, ‘Hey it helps with this, dude. You should try a blunt.’ It’s very different when Susie, who I’ve been working with 10 years for chronic pain, none of our natural solutions were able to work for her, and then all of a sudden CBD has changed her life.”

A woman who experienced seizures walked into Green RX and bought a syringe, a vape pen and a tincture. She returned a month later and reported she used the CBD vape pen in the middle of the seizure and was calm within minutes.

“I’m getting goosebumps right now just thinking about her,” said Green RX manager Sam Solberg.

Herman of Quality CBD got into the business because of his parents. His father had a neck surgery that inserted four bolts to separate a nerve and his mother slipped on ice and broke her knee. They were both prescribed oxycodone, but after he bought them the most powerful CBD tinctures he could find, they stopped taking their prescriptions, went back to work and asked for more.

John Warren, 72, is a Quality CBD customer with arthritis in his ankle and hips. He has had two back surgeries.

“Before this, basically I was eating Tylenol,” he said, but now he doesn’t take any medication at all other than CBD tinctures. 

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Jeff Kundert, co-owner of Green RX, in his store on Lien Road. Kundert says CBD is “rapidly becoming the single best healer in the history of humankind.”

An opioid alternative

In December of 2010, Tim Mulligan was working for a landscaping company just before Christmas trying to “hustle up money” for his family. Perched about ten feet up in a tree, he used a chainsaw to cut off a branch. It bounced off the ground and sprang back up at him, catching him under his ribs and flipping him backwards. The accident chipped part of his skull and compacted vertebrae.

This injury came on top of others suffered in a 2000 car accident that had him on a heavy Vicodin prescription. His reliance on pain medication eventually led him to seek help from a methadone clinic, where he went for three years until, sick of his dependence, he decided to cut himself off his daily 120 mg without the clinic’s knowledge.

Weaning himself off opioid addiction was horrific, Mulligan said. He was not able to sleep for 14 days, every joint ached and he threw up so hard he bruised himself. He had some lower-quality CBD vape juice and gummies at the time that helped take the edge off, but withdrawal was unbearable.

Today, he manages his pain with about 25 mg of CBD tincture each day. He also vapes CBD throughout the day. If the pain is really bad, he’ll have a gummy or two.

“I’ve been sober without any pain killers or any benzodiazepines or anything else that would be considered mind-altering,” he said. “I don't drink or anything like that. I take my CBD. I walk my dog. I get out. I'm able to actually function.”

He’s now the shop manager at Mad Ink Glass and Vape and his story isn’t unique, Hanson said. Now that CBD is legal, Hanson said Mad Ink has helped clients come down from suboxone and even heroin. It’s not the only retailer claiming to help customers decrease their reliance on painkillers, especially after some patients had their opioid prescriptions decreased or cut off with updated 2016 state and national prescription guidelines.

O’Brien said he’s seen “thousands” of people on opioids and over-the-counter medications come in to Apple Wellness and ask if CBD can help deal with pain.

“They show me their hands, literally shaking from the withdrawal. It’s not like we can help every person every time, but the success rate is high,” he said.

If any doctor understands the desire for an opioid alternative, it’s Abd-Elsayed, an authority on the importance of pain management alternatives who has edited a book about chronic pain and the hazards of opioids.

But he’s cautious about CBD. Medical history is littered with failed drugs that were used widely until long-term side effects came to light, he said, listing hormonal therapy for menopausal women, cocaine as an over-the-counter medication and even opioids themselves.

“People said opioids are the way to go … based on very weak evidence and then all of a sudden, it’s actually the biggest killer in the United States,” he said.

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The CBD menu at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company at 123 E. Doty St.

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Three CDB infused cocktails are shown at The Great Dane. At center is the Harvest Mule cocktail with lime-flavored CBD.

More than a fad

Though newly elected Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul have said they’ll take steps toward legalizing medical marijuana in Wisconsin, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, remains opposed. Regardless, merchants insist they’re not afraid of legalization hurting the CBD market. Many customers like CBD precisely because of how it differs from marijuana, they say.

“Our clients are 35  to 70 years old and have no interest in getting high on marijuana. They’re interested in healing,” Kundert of Green RX said. “Our marijuana store will be there across the street.”

Jamaal Stricklin, sales director at SuperCharge! Foods and president of the Madison Public Market Foundation, said he hopes that Wisconsin won’t stop at legalization of CBD and medicinal marijuana, but go for full legalization and overturn misdemeanors and small felonies for carrying and using marijuana.

Stricklin said it’s important to remember that today, consumers can legally buy a CBD infusion while black men sit in jail for seeking the same relief through marijuana. He said people shouldn’t forget how cannabis was “misused and mishandled in the past, and used to subjugate people.”

“Let’s realize that these are real people and real lives that are affected. And your little CBD coffee that’s great and that’s awesome, but for me ... I really want people to talk about, to learn more about it,” he said.

The 2018 Farm Bill means hemp is no longer an illegal substance under federal law and Helmer said this should clear the way for more studies. She thinks more medical insight will bring more customers.

“People wait for the science to come out,” she said.

Hanson of Mad Ink is reaching out to competitors to fund collaborative campaigns and create a “bigger pie.”

“If we work together we can do a lot more and we can reach a bigger audience,” he said.

And based on what they hear from customers about the high success rates of CBD, sellers are confident they’ll be in business for a long time.

“About 80 percent of the people who try my product and notice a difference, they swear by it. They come back and they’re returning customers,” Herman said. “It’s a life changing experience for many people … they feel like they’ve finally found what they’ve been looking for.”

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