Jars of infused gummy candies teetered up toward the ceiling of the Miami Beach Convention Center as Ben Simon adjusted them into a pyramid.
“CBD here!” he yelled at the masses of people filing into the room Friday afternoon.
Simon, the CEO of The Hemp Plug CBD company, was one of 700 brands represented at the USA CBD Expo, which made its debut in South Beach.
On the opposite side of the exhibit hall from Simon, a group of energetic dancers dressed head-to-toe in Spandex bounced around a stage advertising Stoked, a CBD-infused energy drink. Covert puffs of CBD vapor escaped from the mouths of expo-goers, who strolled around the hall. Nearby, a carnival-themed set-up sponsored by a CBD oil vaporizer company offered cotton candy, shaved ice, raffle prizes and a photo booth for the guests (all 18 and older).
Music blasted throughout the hall as thousands of registrants tried out CBD-infused cocktails, facial treatments and a pageant of supplements in every shape, size and color.
The vibrant, loud USA CBD Expo is the brainchild of Zach Bader, managing partner of a New York-based electronic cigarette distributor and co-founder of the trade show.
Bader, who has organized vape conventions and other similar events overseas, said his team picked Miami Beach after calling 10,000 local stores to survey their interest in CBD. CBD, or cannabinoid oil, is the non-euphoric substance that can be extracted and processed from the hemp plant.
The compound, unlike its psychoactive sister THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), won’t get you high but has been anecdotally reported to have calming and anti-inflammatory effects.
While hemp is now legal under the recently passed 2018 federal Farm Bill, consumable CBD products still exist in a gray space largely enforced in a patchwork, state-by-state basis.
South Florida showed the largest interest in CBD, Bader said, comparing it to other cities he’s worked in like Barcelona and Copenhagen. He plans to come back to Miami Beach next year during the convention’s four-show season. The show’s next stop is in Las Vegas in February.
“There is a really high concentration of retail stores here that are either selling the product or are very interested in learning more,” he said. “We are seeing this industry start to percolate. A year ago, it wasn’t where it is today.”
Hemp barriers removed
One key difference between this year and last is the recent passing of the Farm Bill in December, which removed prohibitions on industrial hemp that had been in place since 1937. The bill authorized states to create hemp programs beyond the university research setting, classified hemp as an agricultural commodity and took it off the federal controlled substances list.
”With the Farm Bill passing, there was a resurgence of those products here and we thought it was optimal time to host a convention,” Bader said. “Once you start to begin to understand the uses for them, you get excited about what will happen in the future.”
Leading cannabis researchers BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research, project that the collective market for CBD sales in the U.S. will surpass $20 billion by 2024.
The convention-goers were more keyed on this figure, and less worried about potential push back from anyone looking to enforce state law or agencies like the Food and Drug Administration.
This past week, the FDA sent a warning to Curaleaf, one of the country’s top medical marijuana companies and operator of 25 dispensaries in Florida. The agency chastised the company for illegally selling unapproved products that made unfounded health claims. Curaleaf’s claims could lead people to delay medical care for serious conditions like cancer, the agency said.
“Whether you’re in the CBD industry or manufacturing Cheerios, you can’t go out there and make health claims without clinical trials. That’s a standard,” Bader said.
Logan Stull, sales director for Tampa-based Docs Healthy Hemp, said officials at his company “really like” the idea of agencies like the FDA and the state cracking down on non-compliant companies for competitions’ sake.
“A lot of companies don’t pay to get their stuff tested,” he said. “This will weed those people out.”
Tyler Gomez, who works for Green Roads CBD Company said the warning was a good thing for companies who are playing by the book.
“For us, it’s about protecting our clients and the end consumer at the end of the day,” said Gomez, who wore a green “Make Hemp Great Again” hat. “We’ve been promoting transparency and safe manufacturing practices. The companies that are out there doing it right — this is protecting them. It’s protecting the end consumer, like my grandma.”
Lobbyists for Green Roads were involved in writing the hemp legislation in Florida and helped fund the first hemp pilot project at the University of Florida.
Growing Florida industry
Both Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former attorney-lobbyist who ran on a cannabis-centered platform, and the state’s first cannabis director, Holly Bell, say CBD is what customers demand, and that the product will be a boon for the state’s economy once processors can get licensed here.
Bell, who helped grow the hemp industry in Tennessee before she moved to Florida, said she sees Florida’s nascent hemp program coming in stages. First with hemp extract products like CBD oil to keep up with demand and then later, a larger infrastructure can be built out to process more industrial-scaled crops.
The Florida Legislature passed a hemp bill earlier this year that allows the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to create a state hemp program, playing into a national trend of following what some call the “green rush” of financial opportunity. The new law, which went into effect July 1, also gives guidelines to those who want to eventually sell hemp extract, like required third-party testing, bar codes for users to scan and research information and a statement that the product does not contain more than 0.3% THC.
The hemp program will go into effect once the rules get the green light from the United States Secretary of Agriculture. The deadline to submit the rules was Thursday night.
“I think that we’re going to have farmers grow the high-quality CBD in the first year, the first two years,” Bell told the Herald when the state’s hemp bill passed. “That’s where our focus will be because of the demand in the marketplace.”
Even without any legal hemp plants in the state, Florida leads the nation in the manufacturing of hemp-based CBD products like oils, bath bombs and lotions, according to the Florida Hemp Trade and Retail Association.
The interest in getting a slice of hemp success became evident this summer when nearly 1,000 people filled rooms at hemp rule-making workshops hosted by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“The CBD marketplace, different products for our animals … we know there are around 35,000 known usages for hemp,” Fried said after the first rule-making workshop in Broward County. “Having that opportunity and allowing entrepreneurs to do what they do and start the research aspects is my vision for the state of Florida.”
While CBD is widely popular and hemp technically allowed under the Farm Bill, the extracted substance is still unregulated at the state level and illegal at the federal level, which Fried is vigilant about highlighting.
Last month the FDA published a document called “What You Need to Know (And What We’re Working to Find Out)” that states: “We are aware that there may be some products on the market that add CBD to food or label CBD as a dietary supplement. Under federal law, it is currently illegal to market CBD this way.”
On Fried’s department website, it warns consumers that “the CBD products being sold in Florida are unregulated, untested and without standards on what consumers are putting into their bodies.” It highlights reports of falsely advertised products containing harmful additives and little or no CBD, which Fried has repeatedly called a “consumer issue.” She told reporters during the legislative session that the developing hemp program should eventually stamp a “Fresh From Florida” seal of approval on products that meet consumer requirements.
Fried is right. CBD still hasn’t received approval from the FDA for medicinal use, and the agency as well as local law enforcement has been cracking down on companies who sell the stuff.
For example, Natural Life, a Florida CBD business, was raided twice in Tallahassee for individually packaged hemp flower, which only contained a trace amount of THC found in marijuana. Store manager Alex Petrick told the Herald that more than $25,000 worth of product was seized along with security camera footage.
Eric Block, who helps run a Colorado-based edible CBD company called Wana Brands, said his company has expanded to six different states and already has a partner lined up in Florida.
But since edible CBD products are still illegal in Florida, they’ve decided to hang tight.
He’s used to it, though.
“If you’re expanding out in different states, you have to adapt to different rules and regulations and models. There’s not a lot of industries like that,” he said. “The industry is federally illegal. It’s a really weird dynamic that doesn’t exist in other industries.”