New York is banking on hemp. Hemp, by the way, is not synonymous with that stuff your college roommate smoked to get high. That’s where the confusion begins.
Before delving into hemp’s entrée into the Empire State’s economy, let’s establish what the stuff is, and how it relates — and doesn’t — to marijuana. Hemp is a variety of cannabis sativa, which is grown for industrial products. It sprouts quickly, and was first tapped for its fiber by humanity’s first fashion designers about 10,000 years ago. These days, hemp is refined and used in paper, textiles, clothing, food products, plastics, and insulation. It can also serve as a biofuel.
Hemp is not cannabis or marijuana, but they are both derived from the same species (cannabis sativa), explains Boris Savransky, founder of New York’s HempMe, which sells organic local honey and skincare infused with hemp for humans and pets.
Hemp also contains — like marijuana — psychoactive properties (specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC). But in hemp, the concentrations of THC are much lower than in marijuana. Conversely, hemp contains much higher concentrations of cannabidiol (or CBD), which counteracts any of its THC psychoactive effects. Or in street parlance, hemp ain’t gonna getcha high. But lots of folks still don’t understand that.
Hemp is also widely believed to have beneficial medicinal effects, though whether and how have not yet been established by scientific studies. If it has medicinal effects, does it need to be sold through a pharmacy? That is the position the online sales platform Shopify has taken; while they do allow CBD products to be sold, they require a 3rd party like CBD Merchant Center to process your payments from sales.
The whole THC thing can make governments trip, Savransky explains, adding that the laws vary drastically country to country and state to state. In New York, hemp became big business after legislators gave it a test run — perhaps appropriately — on college campuses.
INTRODUCING HEMP TO NEW YORK
In 2015, the Empire State launched a government-sponsored Industrial Agricultural Research Pilot Program, which basically allowed 10 pre-approved educational institutions to grow and research the market potential of hemp grown on an industrial scale.
Two years later, in 2017, the State lifted the cap on the number of sites allowed to grow and research hemp and opened the doors to farmers and businesses that wanted to grow and produce industrial hemp products -- though licenses are still required. Governor Andrew Cuomo officially signed new legislation establishing hemp as an agricultural commodity that was regulated — and protected — under New York’s Agriculture and Markets Law.
Plenty of farmers and entrepreneurs began tapping into hemp’s potential. The FarmOn! Foundation (full disclosure: I co-wrote a book about wine in Hudson Valley with FarmOn!’s executive director, Tessa Edick), has planted 160 acres worth of hemp. Once harvested, the hemp is processed, CBD oil is extracted, and the oil then goes to a variety of wholesale companies (many in New York), who in turn use it in beauty, food, and beverage products.
Hemp forest. Photo: FarmOn! Foundation
“We are committed to supporting the next generation of farmers to develop profitable careers in agriculture,” Edick explains, adding that once the state loosened restrictions, adding organic hemp to the organic vegetables and grains they were already growing seemed like the perfect way to underline FarmOn’s mission of “reviving and rebuilding rural American economies.”
In addition to lifting a cap on the number of growers allowed in 2017, the governor took it further, providing hemp businesses with the opportunity to snag $10 million in grant funding and announcing a partnership with Cornell University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and SUNY Morrisville to advance hemp research.
Fast forward to 2019, and hemp is being used to manufacture 25,000+ products, from food to fashion to medicine. And New York, unlike many states, has not imposed rules on how hemp can be used. At last count, there were 21 licensed growers sprawled across 2,000 acres, according to Hemp Industry Daily (HID). There were seven licensed hemp processors tasked with extracting CBD oil, greens, and fiber from the hemp plants, HID reports. Dried flowers and buds used for CBD extraction are worth the most, about $100 and up, per HID, with seeds that can be eaten as food or pressed for seed oil going for $0.50-$2.25 a pound.
POTENTIAL HEALTH BOON
While Savransky stresses he is “not a medical doctor,” he includes reviews on his website, HempMe, that reference the multiple health benefits customers of his CBD-oil-infused honeys, tinctures, and rubs.
“Thanks to this honey, I’ve been able to get sleep and hang out with my grandchildren,” writes one enthusiastic fan, who adds that she is finally “able to function and join the rest of the world pain free.”
Other reviewers trying to avoid over-the-counter medications, write that the honey, balm and water-soluble tinctures give them relief from everything from fibromyalgia, to anxiety, to arthritis.
Official medical research and comprehensive studies are still scant, but according to a recent report in Harvard’s Health Blog, the “the strongest scientific evidence is for its effectiveness in treating some of the cruelest childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS), which typically don’t respond to anti-seizure medications. In numerous studies, CBD was able to reduce the number of seizures, and, in some cases it was able to stop them altogether.”
Other studies of CBD, Harvard Health continued, indicate it may help in a broad range of diseases involving inflammation and neuropathic pain, in addition to anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
In June of 2018, the FDA approved the first-ever medication, Epidiolex, derived from cannabis and containing CBD, for use for these conditions.
Still, CBD’s legal status is in flux (New York City recently cracked down on restaurants that used CBD oil in their food and drinks), and its unregulated status makes knowing where you get it from even more essential. One way to verify CBD’s safety is to ensure that it is independently verified by a third-party lab; not something you can do at your local bar or avocado toast emporium.
It is also unclear how CBD might interact with other prescription drugs and medications a person might be taking. So if you are considering it, a check in with your doctor might be a wise idea.
“CBD has high visibility right now, but there is still very little understood,” Edick says. “It is vital for consumers to know where the plant comes from and who grew it.”
And if you do give CBD a whirl, start small, say even the staunchest proponents with a vested commercial interest like Savranksy.
“We recommend starting with a teaspoons of our creamed honey, on toast, in oatmeal or tea,” he says. “If you have chronic pain, you may need two teaspoons, but start small.”
He also advises making sure that the CBD in the product is evenly distributed, no easy task. “Unlike a lot of other products containing CBD oil, through creaming, we ensure that the CBD oil is distributed evenly throughout our honey,” he says.
In other products, the CBD may be unevenly distributed, meaning one teaspoon might pack a wallop, while another would barely register.
If you don’t have anything that requires CBD for medical reasons, you can still use in cocktails. One of our favorite cocktails that have eased the path from Winter to Spring for us is the CBD Negroni, made with The Hudson Standard’s Watermelon Chill Shrub. I’m not sure if the sense of ease and the loosening of tension can be measured clinically — or is related to the minute amount of CBD oil I’m consuming — but it sure can be relaxing.