In-Depth

CBD Boom Hits Houston As Authorities Grapple With New Hemp Law Enforcement

CBD stores have been popping up all over Houston since Texas legalized hemp last year. But there’s still confusion about the difference between hemp and illegal marijuana.

As you drive through Houston, you may have noticed new stores offering oils, creams and other products that contain CBD.

CBD is short for cannabidiol, a substance that’s derived from both marijuana and hemp plants.

The Healing Leaf started with one store in Webster in January 2019. Now, the company is about to open its fifth in Texas.

CBD has for a while been used to treat epilepsy, but Healing Leaf General Manager Gary Utsey said it can help with a range of other ailments.

“Anxiety, stress, PTSD, which we see a lot of, inflammation, arthritis, joint pain naturally,” Utsey said. “Those are the benefits you’re going to see off the top for everybody.”

Last year, the state Legislature passed a law that legalizes the commercial production and sale of hemp in Texas, following in the footsteps of the federal Farm Bill of 2018 that authorized states to do so.

Katharine Harris, a drug policy expert at Rice University, said before Texas passed the law, those selling CBD were acting in a gray zone.

“There are a couple of places actually where law enforcement kind of did try to make arrests for selling CBD products,” she said. “You didn’t see that in a lot of the larger urban areas but that was something that ostensibly they could do.”

Katharine Harris, drug policy expert at Rice University, advises consumers to do their research before buying CBD products.

Hemp is in the same family as marijuana. The main difference is that hemp contains close to no THC, the psychoactive substance that gets marijuana users high.

The problem is Texas crime labs don’t have the capability to test for THC.

Sam Adamo Jr., an attorney with Adamo & Adamo in Houston, which specializes in drug and cannabis law, said he’s glad Texas legalized hemp.

“However, they put the cart before the horse, so to speak,” he said.

Before the law change, he said, determining a violation was like a pregnancy test: it either was or wasn’t cannabis. Now, it’s more complicated.

“When all of a sudden the flower became legal, law enforcement had no real way of knowing whether that was marijuana or whether that was, now legal, hemp,” Adamo Jr. said.

That’s led to several cases where people were arrested for marijuana possession, even though they were found with hemp.

And on the other side of the coin, many Texas district attorneys have dropped marijuana cases, knowing that they can’t prove the crime.

Last year, Harris County DA Kim Ogg announced her office would no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana cases without having lab test results. The DA is evaluating felony marijuana charges on a case-by-case basis.

Ogg’s spokesperson did not respond to emails asking if or how often the DA’s office conducts THC testing, which is done in some places out of state, but is expensive to obtain.

At the Houston Police Department, Sgt. Martin Skeen with the narcotics division said the new law’s impact has been “massive” for law enforcement. For now, he said, the department is holding a lot of evidence for when testing becomes more widely available.

So there is confusion on the law enforcement side, but there’s also an issue when it comes to consumers necessarily getting what they pay for.

“Most of them are not tested and there’s not a quality testing done for these products,” Rice’s Harris said. “So in a sense, you could say that some are kind of like snake oil.”

Healing Leaf manager Utsey said their products are tested by a third party. He said there is no guarantee that CBD will work for someone, but: “We guarantee you’re seeing the level of cannabinoids,” he said. “And they’re listed out on each certificate showing exactly the levels that are in it.”

Since there isn’t much established science on the effectiveness of CBD, Harris advises consumers to do their own research before buying and try out different products to figure out what works best for them.

So, will the CBD wave continue or will it fade?

“It may be that many of these are successful,” Barbara Stewart, retail expert at the University of Houston, said. “It may be that they’re short term businesses that can get in and ride the wave of current popularity and current interest and then they’ll be on to some other product. Time will tell.”

For now, there are more developments underway. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to approve Texas’s hemp program. Only then can farmers get licenses to grow it here.

And on the law enforcement side, Sam Houston State University is currently developing THC testing equipment for use by Texas crime labs.

This story has been changed to correctly describe THC as a psychoactive substance.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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