EVANSVILLE, Ind., March 1 (UPI) -- A hemp trade group announced Friday the start of a voluntary certification program it hopes will influence how the federal government eventually regulates the booming cannabidiol industry.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a compound found mostly in hemp plants. The chemical does not make users high, like marijuana's THC, but producers claim it can treat numerous maladies. The demand for the product has been skyrocketing in the United States since the 2018 farm bill legalized hemp production for the first time in more than 80 years.
The program sets safety and quality control standards that CBD producers must meet to receive the certification from the nascent U.S. Hemp Authority, an industry-funded group.
"We hope that setting these stringent standards signals to the federal government that there is an easy path to regulating CBD," said Marielle Weintraub, president of the authority.
The Food and Drug Administration plans to hold public hearings in April to gather comment on CBD regulations.
"We're deeply focused on this. We have taken on other hard challenges before," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. "You have my commitment I'm focused on this one."
How the FDA decides to regulate CBD is crucial to the industry's future. If the agency treats CBD as a supplement, and sets up quality and safety controls similar to those touted by the Hemp Authority program, the industry will continue to grow, Weintraub said.
On the other hand, if the FDA classifies it as a pharmaceutical drug -- and only allows its sale after rigorous testing proves safety and efficacy -- the industry could flounder.
There is reason to believe the FDA might classify CBD as a pharmaceutical drug. Cannabidiol is used in a drug that treats epilepsy, Epidiolex, and the agency's own rules state that a compound being used as a pharmaceutical cannot also be sold as a supplement.
However, the sudden and intense commercial demand for CBD has made some think the FDA might choose an alternate approach.
"I've never seen demand any product grow so fast," Weintraub said.
Because most of that growth has occurred outside any standards or regulations, consumers worry about the quality and safety of the products they purchase, she added.
Besides influencing regulations, Weintraub hopes the certification program will put consumers' minds at ease.
"It's the consumer who wins with this program," said Annie Rouse, the founder of Nature's Hemp Oil, of Lexington, Ky., which is one of 13 initial CBD producers to receive the certification.
"It was a no-brainer that we were going to do it," Rouse said. "It was an effort to be as transparent as possible. We have nothing to hide."
Like many CBD producers, Rouse entered the industry after the oil helped her with a health issue.
"I was diagnosed with Lyme disease," Rouse said. "Once I got wind of the potential from CBD, I thought, 'Perfect, I'll try this.'"
The oil helped, she said. A lot. But not all the time.
"That was when I was first introduced to the discrepancies in the products," Rouse said. "I tried one product and it worked well. Then I tried another and it worked not at all."
Customers -- and the industry -- need standards moving forward, she said.
Twelve other companies received the U.S. Hemp Authority certification Friday. They are: CV Sciences and HempMeds, of San Diego; Medterra CBD, of Irvine, Calif.; Charlotte's Web, of Boulder, Colo.; MetaCan, of Miramar, Fla.; Balanced Health Botanicals, HD Distribution and Bluebird Botanicals, of Louisville, Ky.; GenCanna and Shell Farms, of Winchester, Ky.; Hempworx, of Las Vegas.; and Barlean's, of Ferndale, Wash.
The U.S. Hemp Authority would not say how many firms applied to be certified.
"We don't want to discourage people from going through the process," said Jarad Geldner, a spokesman for the group. "Our aspiration is that everyone gets this approval."