If you’ve driven around the metro-east lately, you’ve probably seen billboards with giant cannabis leaves and the question, “Got CBD?”
They’re part of an advertising campaign for a company that operates CBD Kratom stores in Belleville, Fairview Heights and St. Louis and The CBD Shop in Alton. Many of its products contain cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating hemp compound that’s billed as a natural way to treat pain, stress, inflammation and other conditions.
“We’ve had lots of customers come in and say, ‘We saw your billboards,’” said co-owner Dafna Revah, 26, of St. Louis County. “We’ve gotten a ton of feedback, so we’re like, ‘OK, this works.’”
Such a campaign would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, before the loosening of laws and changes in attitudes on hemp, one of two main plants in the cannabis family. The other is marijuana, which has CBD but also much more of the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that gets its users “stoned.”
There’s been plenty of debate and confusion over the legality, effectiveness and safety of hemp-derived CBD as alternative medicine, but the marketplace isn’t waiting for definitive answers. U.S. companies are producing extracts, lotions, teas, even candy to meet consumer demand.
Some would say CBD has become downright trendy. After the Academy Awards last month, Women’s Health magazine reported that actor and comedian Melissa McCarthy slathered CBD oil on her toes to help prevent foot pain.
“She’s not the only one who tried this trick,” the magazine reported. “Several stylists stocked their pre-Oscars kits with CBD oil, like Lord Jones Body Lotion, to rub on their clients’ feet before they put on their red-carpet heels, according to The Hollywood Reporter.”
Domestic diva Martha Stewart also is getting into the act, partnering with a Canadian company to produce new CBD products for humans and pets.
Revah and her husband, David Palatnick, began selling CBD products in 2014, the year President Barack Obama signed the U.S. Agricultural Act, better known as the “farm bill,” which legalized hemp cultivation for academic research and state pilot projects and provided for the sale of properly sourced “industrial hemp” with THC concentrations of .3 percent or less.
Today, Revah and Palatnick own nine CBD Kratom stores in the St. Louis area, three in Chicago and two in Dallas. Those in Fairview Heights and St. Charles, Missouri, share space with the couple’s Mr. Nice Guy head shops, which carry bongs, pipes, rolling papers and other smoking supplies.
“We’ve always operated under the interpretation that CBD was legal, and we’ve had zero problem with law enforcement,” Revah said. “... All of our products have less than .3 percent THC. It would probably take several gallons to make you feel any psychoactive effects, and to my knowledge, that is physically impossible.”
The CBD Shop in Alton has a different name because it doesn’t sell kratom, a plant-based powder with psychoactive effects that also is used for therapeutic purposes. It’s legal under federal law for now, but Alton City Council banned it last year over safety concerns.
Steady stream of customers
Belleville’s CBD Kratom opened Dec. 19 in Green Mount Station shopping center on Mascoutah Avenue, between Orchard Dental Care and Great Clips. Wooden shelves are lined with jars of kratom powders. Glass cases display CBD products, everything from skin care to saltwater taffy.
The bright lights and glass storefront are no accident. Revah and manager Brea Emery say they want to create an atmosphere of “transparency.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, the store had a steady stream of customers. That included Blake Clarke, 29, of Belleville, who’s been using CBD to treat anxiety since he was robbed at gunpoint while working at a gas station.
“It helps with my (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Clarke, who was shopping with his mother, Shawna. “If I feel a panic attack coming on, I’ll use a tincture, and in less than a minute, all my symptoms disappear. It’s actually quite remarkable. I love it. I use to take Xanax, and it made me feel lethargic.”
A CBD tincture is a liquid extract that comes in flavors, ranging from cinnamon to lemon, coffee to mint. It’s administered by putting a drop under your tongue.
On this day, Clarke decided to switch methods and try hemp flowers, which are generally smoked. A 7-gram jar costs $49.95. Tinctures run $29.95 to $149.95 for a half-ounce bottle, depending on strength.
“That’s my only complaint,” said Clarke, who works at a vape shop. “I hope when (CBD) becomes more mainstream, the price drops a little bit.”
Another customer, Lynne Tinley, stopped by the store to get some CBD dog biscuits for her bernedoodle, Autumn. A 32-ounce jar with 70 pieces costs $49.95.
Tinley said her sister recommended the “calming” treats after trying them with her dogs. Autumn had been showing signs of anxiety and nervousness, but a veterinarian checked her out and found no apparent health problems.
“They gave her some trazadone,” said Tinley, 45, a bartender who lives in Belleville. “It’s like an anti-depressant, but I don’t think she’s depressed, and we don’t want to dope her up like that.”
Farm bill changed everything
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 outlawed cannabis, including hemp and marijuana, although some cities and states promptly decriminalized it. Since 1996, Illinois and 32 other states have legalized medical marijuana. Michigan became the 10th state to allow recreational use in November. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker hopes to follow suit.
The 2014 farm bill was considered landmark legislation because it got the ball rolling on U.S. hemp cultivation and led companies to start making CBD products.
But the law also caused confusion because hemp remained illegal in the eyes of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It wasn’t until December of 2018 that another farm bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act, removed it from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill also expanded circumstances under which hemp could be grown and its derivatives distributed.
“Any part of the (cannabis) plant that has a concentration of no more than .3 percent of THC is defined as hemp, and it will not fall under the DEA’s purview,” said agency spokesman Wade Sparks. “Anything .3 percent of THC or above is still considered marijuana. It’s a Schedule 1 controlled substance, and that’s still as illegal as it ever was.”
State laws on CBD varied during the four years between the two farm bills, and level of scrutiny by law enforcement depended on locale and other circumstances.
In 2017, the Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southwestern Illinois, a regional drug task force, raided El Tigre head shop in Edwardsville and confiscated more than 60 CBD products, including vape juice and candy. Agents were looking for evidence of “unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver,” according to the search-warrant affidavit.
Acting on an anonymous tip, undercover agents already had bought CBD products at the shop and had them tested at the Illinois State Police crime lab.
“Everything that was taken was deemed to be illegal at the time,” said MEGSI Director Joe Beliveau, noting that it tested positive for THC. Percentages were not determined.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said his office decided not to file charges against El Tigre because it was believed that some business owners didn’t realize they could be selling CBD products with too much THC or improperly sourced CBD (derived from marijuana instead of hemp).
MEGSI later hand-delivered letters to affected businesses, explaining the law.
“We made a decision to use it as a teaching moment for everybody in the industry and say, ‘You’re responsible for your supply. You have to careful,’” Gibbons said.
The raid is a sore subject for El Tigre manager Cheyenne Morrison, clerk Cole Mikulait and buyer Kelli Coon. They question why their shop was singled out when other businesses were selling the same CBD products at the time and continue to do so. Police never returned confiscated items, they said.
Last summer, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Illinois Industrial Hemp Act, which formally legalized hemp cultivation in the state. Barring local restrictions, stores can sell hemp-derived CBD products with less than .3 percent THC.
Even so, El Tigre doesn’t plan to stock CBD until its 2017 drug case “expires.”
“People ask about it all the time,” said Morrison, 20, of West Alton, Missouri. “We’re trying to get CBD back, but we don’t want to poke the bear.”
FDA cautious on CBD, kratom
In June, clinical-study results prompted the Federal Drug Administration to approve the drug Epidiolex, which contains CBD, for the treatment of seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy.
The agency hasn’t ruled out approving CBD for other medical purposes if studies yield safe and positive results, but FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has expressed concern about the number of therapeutic claims made by unapproved CBD products.
“The deceptive marketing of unproven treatments raises significant public-health concerns, as it may keep some patients from accessing appropriate, recognized therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases,” he said in a Dec. 20, 2018, statement following passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act.
The FDA is more negative about kratom, a centuries-old traditional medicine derived from the leaves of a tropical tree in the coffee family that’s native to Southeast Asia. Because of its psychoactive effects, different strains are used to treat ailments ranging from pain to anxiety, stress to fatigue.
Kratum is mostly sold in powder or capsule form. Some people smoke, chew or eat the leaves or brew them to make tea for a quick boost in the morning.
“FDA is concerned that kratom, which affects the same opioid brain receptors as morphine, appears to have properties that expose users to the risks of addiction, abuse, and dependence,” according to the FDA website. “There are no FDA-approved uses for kratom, and the agency has received concerning reports about the safety of kratom.”
Kratom isn’t illegal under federal law, but the DEA is now gathering information and deciding whether to classify it as a controlled substance, Sparks said.
Government and physician warnings haven’t discouraged Jocolyn Accola, 29, a dog groomer who lives in Belleville. She’s been taking kratom capsules instead of pharmaceuticals for six years to alleviate pain.
Accola said she’s had two hip surgeries and one shoulder surgery and is preparing for a second shoulder surgery. She attributes her issues to the heavy packs she carried as a U.S. Marine before receiving a medical discharge. She discovered kratom while stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
“In the Marines, they had me on Vicodin, but I started taking kratom,” Accola said. “It helped take away my pain, and I stopped taking the Vicodin. I felt better taking (kratom) than I did taking pain killers, and I’ve been taking it every since.”
Company started with head shop
Revah is an Oklahoma native who majored in human rights and modern Jewish studies at Columbia University. She met Palatnick in 2012 at a Shabbatt dinner in St. Louis while interning with the American Red Cross. She later worked in audience development for the St. Louis Business Journal.
Palatnick is the son of an American mother, but he grew up in Israel. Revah said he saved all his money during mandatory Israeli Army service and wanted to start his own business in America. The couple opened their first Mr. Nice Guy head shop on Delmar in 2013.
“I thought I was going to be an immigration attorney, but that didn’t happen,” Revah said.
Mr. Nice Guy began carrying CBD products in 2014, after the farm bill passed. Revah and Palatnick gradually opened other Mr. Nice Guy and CBD Kratom stores, including the Fairview Heights location in 2017 and The CBD Shop in Alton last year.
Revah said her family has embraced the non-traditional business, which recently spawned a franchised shop in Los Angeles and shows no signs of slowing down. Her 84-year-old grandmother’s friend goes to the CBD Kratom store in Creve Couer, Missouri, to get cream for back pain ($49.95 to $159.95 for 2-ounce jars).
“We’ve made lots of jokes about (my grandmother) doing commercials for us because she’s part of our target demographic,” Revah said. “That would be great, but I would definitely have to get her on a good day to convince her to do it.”
Revah and Palatnick have about 150 employees, including some who started as customers. Clerk Anna Scott, 23, of Belleville, chews CBD caramels ($3.95 each) to help with menstrual cramps. After 30 to 45 minutes, she said, they take enough of an “edge” off the pain that she can get out of bed.
The new CBD Kratom store in Belleville serves customers in all age groups and walks of life, including construction workers, military personnel, farmers and athletes, said clerk Marty Schulz, 27, of Belleville.
“Anyone who has worked their body hard,” he said. “We’ve even had a cop or two. Normally, they’re retired, but we had one active.”
Emery, 28, of Belleville, understands that there’s still a stigma surrounding hemp and CBD because of their relationship to cannabis and marijuana, going all the way back to the “Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s. She spends much of her time educating the public on how they’re different.
The most common CBD question is, “Will this get me high?”
“There is no dumb question,” Emery said. “Transparency is very important. We have nothing to hide. It’s a very open and welcoming place in the community, and the community treats us as such. There are people who are confused, but that’s why we’re here.”