Ready, set ...
That pretty much describes the status of an entire industry--the makers of products containing cannabidiol, or CBD. The compound, added to everything from skin cream to ice cream, can be derived from hemp or marijuana and has been touted as a treatment for ailments ranging from anxiety to cancer. The catch: "It's still in a legal gray area," says Bethany Gomez, director of research for Brightfield Group, which studies the cannabis and CBD industries.
Marijuana is subject to a patchwork of state regulations. But the 2018 farm bill would remove hemp from the list of controlled substances, opening the floodgates for hemp-derived products. "Everyone and their mother is starting a CBD line right now," says Gomez. "It's absolutely a gold rush."
With about 6 percent of the market, Davie, Florida-based Green Roads is the largest private company specializing in hemp-derived CBD, according to Brightfield. The company sells CBD-infused products such as tinctures and balms, online and in 6,000 stores and 2,000 doctors' offices. Green Roads now has about 100 employees, and co-founder Arby Barroso estimates 2018 revenue at $45 million.
Barroso, 48, became interested in CBD after being introduced to it by a friend in Colorado. He had long taken painkillers for a crushing football injury he sustained when he was 23. When his real estate business collapsed during the financial crisis, he invested in a pain-management clinic. Barroso describes that decision as "the worst thing ever," as he soon became addicted to opiates. Then his friend suggested he try CBD gummies, which helped him stay clean.
The CBD in Barroso's gummies was derived from marijuana plants, so it contained another compound, THC, which is illegal in many states. Barosso needed something without THC--he'd been jailed for drug use, and testing positive for THC would violate his parole. In 2012, he approached a compounding pharmacist, Laura Fuentes, about making a hemp-derived CBD product that could alleviate his pain and help keep him off opiates. She came up with an oil. "I could have gotten cleaner quicker if I'd had CBD every day," he says.
Fuentes and Barosso soon became business partners and the co-founders of Green Roads. Barroso went door-to-door to smoke shops, leaving bottles of CBD oil on consignment. "In the beginning, no one would give us the time of day," Fuentes says. Then she started hearing that grandmothers were going into vape shops to find CBD. "I was like, we have to do something about this," she says. "Grandmas are not comfortable in vape stores!"
The cost of doing CBD business
Unlike some producers of CBD, Fuentes and Barroso never intended to grow their own hemp, which was outlawed in Florida when they began anyway. At the time, Barroso says, it was almost impossible to buy an oil containing only minimal amounts of THC. It's easier now, but supply can still be tricky: "We can't always get 10 55-gallon drums of oil," he says. Green Roads products use a blend of four to five different cannabinoids, using both oils and isolates (concentrated CBD extract in the form of a powder), designed by Fuentes.
There are other, unexpected, costs. Green Roads lost four banks when their risk-management teams decided that Green Roads wasn't a business they wanted to be supporting. The company's Instagram account has likewise been shut down four times, because of legal restrictions on marketing CBD products. Instead of paying standard credit card processing fees of less than 3 percent, Green Roads pays closer to 6 percent.
Fuentes says she has to deal with "tons" of shady people in the industry. She says vendors have offered to sell her extract that contains specified levels of CBD or other compounds. They send her samples, which she sends to her lab. The samples check out fine, so she orders a kilogram--but when she sends a bit of that order to the lab, "it's not the same thing they sent me as a sample. And there is no recourse." Green Roads spends $30,000 to $40,000 a month testing their raw materials for pesticides, solvents, and metals, and it requires certificates of origin from their suppliers as well.
Betting on the farm bill
Because CBD currently operates on the boundaries of legality, it's tricky to figure out how big the industry is and how much bigger it could get. Brightfield pegs the market for hemp-derived CBD products at about $591 million in 2018, growing to $22 billion by 2022. Other analysts, while nowhere near as bullish, are still very positive on the sector. Hemp Business Journal says the market for hemp-derived CBD was about $190 million in 2017, and will grow to $646 million by 2022.
Experts expect the market for CBD to balloon if and when the farm bill passes, which could happen this month. That means the biggest challenge for Green Roads is yet to come. "I'm not worried about the companies that are in the market today, I'm worried about big companies," Barroso says. "We can't compete with those guys. I think about it every day."
So for now, Green Roads, like other private businesses in this market, is girding for the day when it will have to compete--or collaborate--with the larger players they are sure will enter the fray. (Even Coca-Cola is rumored to be developing a CBD product.) Green Roads, for example, is involved in a pilot program with the University of Florida to bring hemp farming back to the state to bolster its profile, connections, and potentially, supply. Another CBD company, Dr. Kerklaan Therapeutics, joined together with three manufacturing facilities to create a larger entity that would interest investors; they raised $15 million.
"The day the farm bill passes, the day we're allowed to spend $50,000 a day on marketing on Facebook, on Google Adwords, on Instagram--I don't know if there's enough product in the country" to fulfill demand, Barroso says. "We're not at our full potential today, not even close."