"Figuring Out What the Buttons Do," As CBD Takes Off in East TN

Jun 20, 2019

Hemp samples fill a shelf at the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research.
Credit Leslie Snow

It’s hard to miss the signs popping up throughout Knoxville. Not cosmic signs; seemingly ubiquitous literal ones, on which stores advertise products containing CBD, from extracts and lotions to dog treats. The recent flood of these products can be traced back to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp at the federal level and set the stage for states like Tennessee to create their own regulations for hemp production.

Elliott Altman, the director of the Tennessee Center for Botanical Medicine Research, has been studying hemp since 2016. He says people are still confused about the differences between hemp and marijuana.

“You have a plant, cannabis, but like any plant, there are thousands of varieties. So, we have a marijuana variety that’s high THC and low CBD," Altman says. "But then you have hemp, which flips it and it’s high CBD, but still has medical properties, and very little THC.”

The claims about CBD are broad. It’s been touted as a treatment for depression, insomnia, joint pain, anxiety, and even cancer. While it’s not a cure-all, Altman says he believes CBD has real health benefits.

“There’s no question that CBD is an anti-inflammatory agent, so it is definitely affecting the regulation of the immune system. It can help alleviate some types of cancer at least in human cellular models,” he says.

Randall Duckett says CBD products help him deal with chronic health issues, but they're not a panacea.
Credit Leslie Snow

The extract has helped Knoxville resident Randall Duckett, who has a degenerative joint condition. He turned to CBD to relieve symptoms of chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.

“It’s worked well,” he says. “It is not a panacea. It does not automatically make you feel great. What it does is it takes the edge off a little bit. It makes you a little more functional and makes you feel a little better. And with me, it kind of makes me chattier and more relaxed.”

Even though CBD doesn’t have enough THC to make Duckett high, it can accumulate in the blood stream over time. Duckett worries that even a trace amount of THC means he could fail a drug test.

“I have a pain contract with the doctor which means that I have got to stick with the pain regimen that I have," he says. "Things like testing positive for marijuana would be a bad thing. And when you take CBD, there is a trace of THC.”

Altman sympathizes with users like Duckett. He says drug tests used today are far too sensitive.

“The real problem,” he explains, “is that certain companies and even government agencies are saying any THC and you’re busted. You can have one nanogram per mil, which we can detect, and it’s illegal, and, that’s not right.”

Despite worries over drug testing, the CBD industry is expected to be reach over two-billion dollars in sales by 2020. Numbers like that are just part of the attraction for Joe Fox, co-founder and CEO of Blühen Botanicals, a Knoxville based hemp processing and extracting company that opened its first retail store in the Old City last month. Fox likes being on the forefront of a new industry but admits there are challenges, as he pointed out in a vivid analogy.

Bluhen Botanicals co-founder Joe Fox is optimistic about CBD's future, but says the current regulatory environment is like "being shot into orbit and trying to figure out what the buttons do...on the way up."
Credit Leslie Snow

“This is like being shot into orbit and trying to figure out what the buttons do in the shuttle on the way up. The trajectory of this thing is like nothing I’ve ever been a part of.”

Fox is trying to create his own rules in an industry that is largely unregulated. He cautions consumers against buying CBD products from companies that don’t provide a chemical analysis or third-party testing. He says, “There are a lot of folks that are conducting business and manufacturing in facilities which are not food safe they are putting products on the market which should not be ingested by anyone.”  

In time, Fox believes, CBD products will be mainstream. “I want to the soccer mom grabbing our product off the shelf going to the checkout line, seeing someone from church, and not feeling like she has to hide the product," he says.

Fox sees Tennessee is a model for hemp legislation. And with an infrastructure already in place for farmers, processors, and retailers, the state may find itself an industry leader, as hemp and CBD become more widespread across the country.