When Asheville resident Jon Griffith was 59 years old, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer after a series of prostate exams in the spring of 2015. Out of the 16 needles used in his biopsy, two came back positive for cancer.
His doctors recommended radiation treatment, but wary of the harsh side effects of the radiation, Griffith looked for other answers.
He began seeking alternative treatments for his condition, eating vegetarian and trying a multitude of supplements to cure himself holistically. That’s when a friend told him about cannabidiol, or CBD, a medically remarkable and legal cannabinoid found in the hemp and marijuana plants.
Since CBD can be found in legal industrial hemp and is not a scheduled narcotic, it can be sourced 100 percent legally in the United States, as long as the hemp it is extracted from contains less than 0.3 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient in marijuana that causes euphoria and the high that users feel.
After learning of CBD’s legality and potential efficacy in treating his prostate cancer, Griffith found an online source for pure cannabidiol from a vendor in Southern California and subsequently purchased six vials for $1,200.
“I began taking 0.2 grams two times a day in April of 2015,” Griffith says. “In early July of 2015, I had another biopsy that came back with no carcinoma.”
While his improved prostate health could be attributed to other causes, Griffith swears by the CBD supplement and recommends it to friends frequently.
“I recommend it to anyone I talk to about cancer,” Griffith says.
Although the cannabis plant has a long history of medical use in humans, modern cannabis prohibition has limited research on the effects of cannabinoids in the treatment of illness until recently; most medical researchers have only been able to study the effects of CBD on cancer and other diseases for a few years.
As cannabidiol is not technically a medicine according to the FDA and not officially recognized as a cancer therapy by medical providers, patients cannot get their health insurer to cover costs associated with CBD treatments. So, people like Griffith are often stuck with the full cost of the plant extracts, which can be costly.
Though not currently able to afford the high dosage he was taking during his bout with cancer, Griffith continues a smaller daily dosage as a preventive measure against future prostate maladies.
Long road to legality
Even though hemp farming recently became federally legal, and cannabidiol can be bought in stores all over the state, it has not always been that way, and North Carolina hemp legislation is complicated.
In 2014, a federal farm bill passed that legally separated hemp and marijuana in the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Agency and allowed the federal government to begin programs to study the effects of hemp extracts containing various cannabinoids.
While hemp and marijuana are the same plant and contain similar profiles of cannabinoids, the difference lies in the concentration of THC. According to federal guidelines under the 2014 Farm Bill, hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, whereas marijuana can contain upwards of 20 percent.
Under that 2014 farm bill, states like Kentucky and Colorado started licensing farmers to begin growing cannabidiol-rich hemp for extracts, and these cannabidiol extracts were sold online and in stores around the country, as long as they fell within the federal limits of less than 0.3 percent THC per volume.
So North Carolinians could possess CBD extracts but not full-spectrum extracts containing a detectable amount of THC over that 0.3 percent limit, and they could not grow their own CBD-dominant hemp.
In July 2015, the N.C. General Assembly passed HB 766 allowing residents with intractable epilepsy to possess hemp extracts containing cannabidiol and other cannabinoids with a written prescription from a doctor or caregiver, as long as the extracts contained less than 5 percent THC.
In August 2015, the Legislature passed a bill allowing hemp to be grown in-state once a hemp commission to license farmers had been set up and sanctioned by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Medicine from the Earth
Mike Rogers, who holds a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences, and Bill Cheek, who has a B.S. in pharmaceutical sciences, co-own and operate Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs on Biltmore Avenue. Their store distributes various brands of cannabidiol products available without a prescription.
According to Rogers, his store has seen a huge demand for CBD oils and other CBD products as Asheville residents seek to mend their bodies and minds with this recently legalized cannabinoid.
“I’ve been a pharmacist for 40-something years, and no one has ever called me [before] and thanked me for dispensing a drug to them,” Rogers says. “We get calls almost every day with someone saying, ‘Thank you for recommending this to me.’”
Mainly, Rogers deals with customers battling anxiety and sleeplessness, but he also deals with customers who have more acute medical issues.
According to Rogers, CBD can be used to treat a host of medical indications, including seizures, inflammation disorders, anxiety, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis.
“We have six to 10 patients using it for seizures,” Rogers says. “We actually have the University of North Carolina [at Chapel Hill] neurology department sending us patients to put on the CBD oil.”
According to Rogers, many of his customers are trying to escape the troubling side effects of their pharmaceutical medications and find a natural way to ease their symptoms.
Particularly for anti-anxiety and seizure medications, Rogers says the side effects can be severe and include sedation leading to a “zombie” state.
“We have people wanting to get off all these drugs, all these sleeping pills and benzodiazepines that are so addicting,” Rogers says. “The only side effect that we have seen [with CBD] is that it creates that calming effect for you.”
One of the brands Rogers sells at Nature’s Vitamins and Herbs is Palmetto Harmony, manufactured by Palmetto Synergistic Research out of Conway, S.C.
Founded in 2015, the company’s brand is named after CEO Janel Ralph’s daughter, Harmony, who suffers from intractable epilepsy and benefited remarkably from the use of CBD to treat her seizures.
“Our company is made up of a group of parents who have children with different ailments, the majority of which is intractable epilepsy, but some of my business partners’ children have Crohn’s disease and autoimmune disorders.” Ralph says.
Motivated to help their sick children but wary of breaking the law, the parents banded together with others seeking quality CBD treatment, lobbied the South Carolina Legislature and eventually got CBD oil legalized in their state.
However, even with the CBD legislation on the books, the parents found they were unable to grow their own hemp for processing into CBD oil.
In addition, she and her business partners were unable to purchase hemp with high-CBD strain genetics from any reputable growers because of prohibitive laws preventing interstate sale of hemp or high-CBD marijuana, according to Ralph.
“After we worked to get CBD legislation legalized, we found out that basically our fight was moot,” Ralph says. “We should have been fighting for a comprehensive hemp legislation so that we could obtain the CBD.”
Unable to legally obtain CBD oil to treat their children but still legally allowed to possess and treat their children with the oil, the group turned to the black market.
“We were getting sold a lot of mislabeled products not fit for human consumption,” Ralph says. “It was not a good time.”
Fed up with the sketchy nature of CBD products on the black market, Ralph and her business partners decided to form their own CBD company to sell dependable, medical-quality hemp-based oils, and so arose Palmetto Synergistic Research.
Still unable to grow or process hemp legally in South Carolina, Palmetto Synergistic Research turned to a grower in Kentucky, where high-CBD hemp agriculture was federally legalized under a Kentucky Department of Agriculture program in 2014.
As soon as the first Kentucky crop was ready for processing, Ralph and her business partners filed incorporation paperwork and formed Palmetto Synergistic Research to purchase the CBD oil.
Now with a year’s experience, Ralph and Palmetto are expanding their product line to include topical salves, used to treat various skin ailments and arthritis, and vaporizer juice, used for quicker absorption into the body.
“We’re seeing a lot of people benefit from our products,” Ralph says. “So many people have found relief, and that’s great to see.”