Florida’s cannabinoid oil market falls into gray area because of hemp laws

In Florida, where CBD products line the shelves of mainstay retailers like Whole Foods and GNC, hemp is still a scheduled drug.
CBD oil. [New York Times]
CBD oil. [New York Times]
Published March 7, 2019

As bills aimed at creating a state hemp program make their way through legislative committees and onto the floor, advocates and sellers of cannabinoid oil, or CBD, are left scratching their heads.

In December the $867 billion federal Farm Bill, among other things, classified hemp as an agricultural commodity and took it off the federal controlled substances list.

But in Florida, where CBD products line the shelves of mainstay retailers like Whole Foods and GNC, hemp is still a scheduled drug. Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high.

The awkward few months between the Farm Bill’s passage in December and the ongoing legislative session leaves a crucial question: What happens to CBD products and the people who sell them?

Some say it’s a gray area, but it’s one Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has been vocal about.

At her announcement of Holly Bell as the state’s first cannabis director, Fried told reporters that unregulated CBD products are a consumer issue. She said she planned to work with a future hemp program that would stamp a “Fresh From Florida” seal of approval on products that meet requirements from the department.

“We’ll be doing cease and desist letters to everybody who is not complying,” she said in February.

Hemp industry advocates Wednesday said Scheril Murray Powell, Fried’s federal affairs director, told them the cease and desist letters were coming this week.

Murray Powell declined to comment. When reached Wednesday afternoon, she said she had been fired.

“No reason given,” she wrote in an email. She then canceled an interview with the Herald/Times. She was first hired by Fried to join her transition team in November. Murray Powell has been federal affairs director, which pays $100,000 annually, since December.

One of Murray Powell’s top responsibilities was advocating for the state’s priorities of federal issues, including federal Farm Bill compliance and implementation of a statewide hemp program.

Fried’s team announced Wednesday night that Murray Powell was replaced by Shahra Lambert, Fried’s regional director for Southwest Florida.

The department also put out a statement clarifying that no cease and desist letters had been issued, but that Fried has made it clear that the sale of CBD products is not currently legal in Florida until hemp legislation is passed.

Colette Florido, founder of St. Petersburg-based hemp product company CR World, said she was frustrated with the way the department handled the situation.

“I just feel like it’s very hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” Florido said. “We’ve all put in our heart, our soul, our life savings into these businesses. But we’ve also put in our hearts to the customers.”

Gary Stein, a lobbyist for Clarity PAC, said he thought the cease and desist letters were just a rumor until Murray Powell brought it up.

“It obviously was not a fallacious rumor,” he said. “Those who have heard about it are quite upset. They’ve been blindsided.”

Jodi James, a consultant for a CBD oil company in Sarasota, said her clients have already started the process of selling their lab.

“I’m very saddened and a little sickened … When they just delivered me my last kilo of CBD, I was committing a felony possession with intent to distribute,” said James, who kept the company’s name private for security reasons. “I have found myself a criminal in my own state.”

Tampa attorney Michael Minardi, general counsel for Florida NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), says the product is legal, because it’s legal under federal law.

“In Florida, because they don’t necessarily recognize the definition of hemp in federal law or in the Florida farm bill because it’s not grown in Florida, that’s where their position is that it is illegal,” he said. “I do believe that it’s an incorrect assertion.”

Minardi filed a petition with Attorney General Ashley Moody last month, requesting that she remove hemp as a controlled substance in conformity with the federal deregulation of hemp.

Under state law, Moody has the authority to adopt rules that would reschedule specified substances to a less controlled schedule or even delete substances from a schedule entirely. It depends on whether reduced control of such substances is in the public interest.

She has until late next week to respond to Minardi’s petition.

Taylor Biehl, co-founder of the brand-new Florida Hemp Industries Association, said there is a gray area surrounding CBD products and that the issues won’t be solved until a hemp program is created in the state.

“There is still confusion about whether hemp-derived products, such as CBD, are legal to sell and purchase in Florida,” he said. “Given that the federal and Florida laws appear to be in conflict on this important issue, we urge the Legislature to pass a bill that clearly decriminalizes hemp in Florida. “

Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who filed the hemp program bill in the Senate, said he doesn’t see a gray area at all. There are criminal statutes regarding cannabis, he said, which is why lawmakers like himself must work to make a formal hemp program through the legislative process.

“The bottom line is that it’s not deregulated on the state level,” Bradley said, making note that hemp’s legal status federally doesn’t matter here. “It’s important that people know that what they are buying.”