Hemp world sits at pivotal moment in its history, Israelsen tells attendees at expo

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / Aleksandr_Kravtsov
© Getty Images / Aleksandr_Kravtsov
The world of hemp and CBD products sits at a critical moment in its history, much as the dietary supplement industry did a quarter century ago, according to one of the experts who was there at the birth of the industry.

Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, was a prominent speaker at the 6th annual NoCo Hemp Expo that took place Friday and Saturday at a hotel events space in Denver, CO. Organizers said more than 10,000 people (divided between members of the industry one day and the public the next) attended the event, and more would have come if the venue had been able to accommodate them.

Organizers issued tickets to restrict access because of fire capacity concerns, and said the event sold out quickly. The high-energy expo featured an extensive slate of speakers, whose presentations ranged from sober market analyses, forums on regulations and chemical analytical concerns to ad hoc performance art consisting of poetry readings and gentle nods to rap music. The event also included an address and photo op from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who took office in January. Polis was a member of the Dietary Supplement Caucus during his time as a US Representative.

Seminal moment in industry’s history

Israelsen said the industry finds itself at singular moment in its history with the passage of the most recent Farm Bill in December. That legislation removed cannabis from the schedule one list of controlled substances maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration, thus firmly placing it in the purview of the US Department of Agriculture as an approved crop species.

Israelsen told the audience that the world of hemp and CBD products feels very familiar to him. He said the energy—and the uncertainty—of the category reminded him of the supplement industry around the time of the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which he helped shepherd into existence as part of the staff of then Sen. Orrin Hatch,  R-UT.  DSHEA created dietary supplements as a subset of foods from a regulatory perspective. 

Before that law came into existence, regulators didn’t have a clear picture of what supplements were and where they should sit in that regulatory framework. 

Supplements and hemp products took similar paths

Israelsen said the parallels between the two industries, which have some significant crossover, are striking.

“Cannabis has been one of the most vilified products in the history of this country, and that goes back to the 1920s and 1930s,”​ Israelsen said. “Previous to that hemp was one of most respected natural products in the history of the world.”

“We went through decades of the same sort of what we saw as discrimination. We felt the mainstream media had misrepresented who we were and what we were about,”​ he said.

“From the late 60s into the 90s there was no place for us. The world was divided into foods and drugs,”​ Israelsen said.

“DSHEA was our big moment, and this is yours,” ​Israelsen said. 

Period of rapid change in store

Israelsen said after DSHEA was put into effect in 1994, the supplement industry started to change rapidly. With a solid regulatory underpinning, new investment funds started to pour in, and with it came new players. The same is starting to happen in the hemp/CBD world, with major CPG players lining up to enter the space.

“The Farm Bill didn’t solve all the problems. But it has created a lawful pathway for industrial hemp. You are all now facing that really important moment of 'what do we do now?'"

“This is still a small community made up of people who all know each other. But that is about to change in a big way,” ​he said.

Israelsen noted that many of the ingestible hemp oil or CBD products are being sold as dietary supplements. Part of the industry’s maturation will be to understand the opportunities and restrictions that come with that positioning, he said.

“We went through a period of figuring out how to be grown ups, and you will, too. There will be a period of consolidation, industrialization, globalization,”​ he said.

Maintaining a focus on identity

Israelsen said that the projected future growth of the category is so robust that the hemp industry is forecast to approach the size of the dietary supplement category as a whole within a decade. With that opportunity comes challenges, he said.

“Finally, there will be alienation. Your consumers will start to feel as if they don’t know you anymore,”​ he said.

Israelsen said leaders within the category need to step up to make sure that quality and identity remain paramount concerns.  As with any popular botanical, shadowy players hover at the fringe of the category seeking a way to capitalize without putting in the full effort to source quality raw materials and standardize derivatives.

“My biggest concern is with synthetic cannabinoids. It’s already here, and it could do great damage to this industry,”​ he said.

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