A week ago I attended the sixth annual NoCo Hemp Expo at a hotel events space in north Denver. Before I drove up there, I posted this screed about whether the CBD category was truly ready for prime time.
Hemp, supplements similarities
One of the speakers at the event, Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance, told his audience that the CBD world stands where the dietary supplement category did more than 25 years ago.
There was confusion on the regulatory front. And there were a variety of firms in business, ranging from international ingredient suppliers who wore nicely tailored French suits down to a still burgeoning cadre of what people used to call the ‘garage wizards.’
“We had to figure out how to be adults, and you will, too,” he said.
Based on what I saw on the show floor and heard in the meetings rooms, the industry seems to be taking big steps toward being a sober, well behaved member of the human nutrition landscape.
Echoes of the stoner past
There are still many echoes of the category’s loose and free past. At least one booth had a list of almost every disease known to mankind, with the implied message that CBD was good for all of these.
Some booths were selling wares that harkened back to the days of Cheech and Chong, such as an artist selling portraits of people enjoying cannabis products with titles like 'Vape Hit Vivian' and 'Spacey Stacy.' And David Bronner, grandson of the founder of the Dr. Bronner’s line of soaps and personal care products and a longtime cannabis activist, spent some of his address talking about the ‘mind opening’ experiences he had living in a squat in Amsterdam.
I make no judgements about people’s tastes or habits, and by way of full disclosure I was (and still am) a big fan of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic strip, one of the graphic touchstones of the stoner age. But if I were an investor, that sort of thing might give me pause.
For the most part, these sort of messages were outliers on the show floor, which I think is probably a good thing for the future of the category.
The regulatory picture for CBD seems to be primed for some sort of resolution. FDA has announced a meeting set for the end of May to begin the process of figuring out a regulatory pathway for these products. It might take the form of a rule making procedure or a new law from Congress, but in either case there seems to be real momentum behind this effort.
Quality still a weak point
Among the things the agency is looking for from industry stakeholders is safety and manufacturing information. This is still a weak point, one that the industry will have to correct if it wants to realize the glittering vistas that have been forecast.
For example, in 2015 and 2016 FDA took the somewhat unusual step of pulling CBD products from shelves to test them. They performed poorly, with few of the products meeting label claim. I don’t see much evidence that that situation has changed. It’s hard to tell what exactly is in these products, and what the dosages are.
I even had one of the speakers at the event, who had been experimenting with CBD products, ask me which were the best made and which offered the correct dosages. I had to tell her that I had no way to answer her question. If people within the category struggle to answer that question, in what position does that put the consumers? The role of willing dupes, perhaps?
More peer reviewed studies, consensus on testing needed
And much of what consumers seem to believe that CBD will do for them is still being shared by word of mouth. We live in the era of the online meme, shared on Instagram or other platforms, where belief about a certain product’s effects, or those of a given treatment modality, can leapfrog the science. This might be great for sales short term, but it is not a long term strategy for growth.
If the category wants to thrive in the decades to come, there will have to be more certainty about quality control, which must include consensus on how to test these products. Different labs are using different methods, and the results reportedly can vary significantly on the same lot of material.
And someone is going to have to step up to the plate to fund more peer reviewed science. “Everybody knows that CBD is good for (fill in the blank)” is not a scientific rationale. But that is more or less the tenor of what I heard from some exhibitors on the show floor when I asked them what they thought their products would do for consumers.
To sum up, the recent event showed how far the CBD/hemp industry has come from the days when it was a guerrilla activity. And it also showed the areas in which it still needs to grow, and fast.