Without legal way to buy medical marijuana, Georgians turn to CBD

It’s against the law to buy medical marijuana in Georgia, but you don’t have to drive far to find a similar product for sale in stores.

Stacked in smoke shops and nutrition stores, customers can buy cannabidiol droplets, capsules or creams to treat minor aches and pains.

Meanwhile, there's no way for patients suffering from severe seizures, intractable pain or deadly cancer to legally purchase a more potent cannabis product, low THC oil, in the state even if they're registered through Georgia's medical marijuana program.

> RELATED: CBD is everywhere in Georgia but is it safe?

Without access to medical marijuana, business is booming in Georgia for cannabidiol — also called CBD — to find relief for anxiety, arthritis and back pain. Lawmakers are considering whether to expand the state's official medical marijuana program so low THC oil could be manufactured and distributed here.

“People are turning to cannabidiol as an alternative when they can’t get low THC oil,” said Anthony LaBorde, the store operator for Discount Nutrition in Midtown Atlanta and Acworth. “We get people coming in here who say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is marijuana, I can’t believe you sell this.’ There’s complete confusion.”

CBD vials cost $30 to $300 in LaBorde’s store, depending on size and brand.

Cannabidiol is derived from hemp, which, like marijuana, is a form of the cannabis plant. The difference is that CBD contains only trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana. Neither CBD nor low-THC medical marijuana gives users a high.

Another key distinction: CBD is legal to buy, sell and transport. Georgia’s medical marijuana program, which began in 2015, permits possession of the drug by about 4,000 patients who are registered with the state.

CBD might help with minor ailments, but many patients find it’s only effective when combined with THC, said Shannon Cloud, who lives in Smyrna and gives medical marijuana to her 13-year-old daughter, who suffers from seizures as a result of Dravet syndrome. Medical marijuana has reduced the frequency of her seizures to about one a week.

“For seizures, most patients start with CBD oil, but a lot of patients end up doing better with higher levels of THC,” Cloud said. “It can help people, but it doesn’t have all aspects of the plant included in it and you lose some of the benefit.”

Several recent studies indicate CBD could help treat seizures when combined with other drugs, as well as reduce anxiety or treat drug addiction, according to Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. But the evidence for CBD's effectiveness remains mixed as more rigorous studies are underway.

CBD sales are thriving across the country, especially in states such as Georgia that allow medical but not recreational marijuana, said Bethany Gomez, the research director for the Chicago-based Brightfield Group, a market research firm focused on cannabis and CBD.

The market for hemp-derived CBD sales has grown from $174 million in 2016 to $590 million this year, she said. If Congress passes legislation this year that would fully legalize hemp, CBD sales could explode to $22 billion by 2022, which would rival the national cannabis market.

“CBD is very widely used by people who would not come anywhere near cannabis, who don’t want anything to do with the mind-altering effects of marijuana but want treatment for chronic pain, anxiety and women’s health conditions,” Gomez said.

Police in Georgia say they’re concerned about the vast growth of the CBD market without oversight to ensure it’s safe for consumption.

Some smoke shops could be using CBD oil as a disguise to illegally sell THC oil, said Wesley Nunn, the president of the Georgia Narcotics Officers Association and commander of the Ocmulgee Drug Task Force around Baldwin County. Both oils look the same to the naked eye.

"You don't know what's in it. That's the problem," Nunn said. "If it's helping with seizures, appetite disorders and PTSD, let's get it regulated. … There's so much money being pushed behind the marijuana trade, and people are trying to get on board."

CBD and THC oils would have to be tested to determine their contents, GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said. But most drug enforcement is focused on the opioid problem, and the state crime lab has a severe months-long backlog.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a directive in May stating that prohibitions on marijuana extracts don't apply to products such as sterilized seeds and oils that are made from the cannabis plant. CBD oil has less than 0.3 percent THC; Georgia's medical marijuana law allows up to 5 percent THC.

Georgia needs to find a way for registered patients to legally obtain the low THC oil they signed up for, said state Rep. Micah Gravley, a co-chairman of a group studying changes to state medical marijuana laws. CBD oil alone only helps a limited number of people, he said.

“I would like for patients in Georgia who are taking this and have a card and are registered to know without a doubt, ‘I’m getting a good product and it will treat the diagnosis I have,’ ” said Gravley, R-Douglasville. “They don’t know where to go.”