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Miracle cure or placebo?

As CBD industry booms, some worry about quality control

Nick and Jessica Polakowski monitor the equipment their company, Green Owl Wellness, uses to extract CBD oil from hemp plants.

Pain? Stress? Anxiety? If you’ve been sitting in traffic on a Madison highway lately, you may have seen the billboards offering relief from modern life through the salvation of CBD oil. CBD shops are popping up all over Madison.

CBD, short for cannabidiol, is made by extracting oil from hemp or marijuana flowers. It’s the compound that relaxes the body, not the one that produces a high. Hemp is legal to grow in Wisconsin, and according to the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection more than 1,000 people are growing it this year. But how does it get from farm fields around the state to your retail counter? The answer lies in a pole barn in Brooklyn, Wisconsin.

The barn belongs to Nick and Jessica Polakowski. By day, Nick works in construction and Jessica practices law in Madison. By night, they’re making CBD oil in small batches, alongside another couple, their friends Lucas and Monica Wagner. Their company, Green Owl Wellness, just celebrated its first birthday, with the four friends working nights and weekends after coming home from their day jobs and raising small children.

With CBD oil going for as much as $200 an ounce, it’s a booming business opportunity for them. But the couples admit that with all the outlandish claims about CBD and the lack of regulatory oversight, buyers should beware.

“It’s a really weird time in the hemp world right now,” Lucas says. “It’s kind of the wild west. People are out there just kind of doing whatever they want.”

Coaxing oil out of hemp plants requires a mix of low-tech and high-tech machinery. Green Owl Wellness buys dried flower buds from local farmers in the fall, which it stores in big plastic tubs in the Polakowskis’ barn.

The hemp gets ground up in what looks like an industrial strength coffee grinder and then baked in a convection oven, like you’d find in a commercial kitchen. Heat is crucial for converting the CBD molecule into a usable form. (This is also true for THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, and is why it is most often consumed by smoking.) After the plants are ground and baked, it’s on to the main event: the C02 extraction. The extractor is an industrial machine about the size of a car, with gleaming stainless steel tanks, an air compressor, and some carbon dioxide tanks all hooked up to a computer screen.

Nick stuffs the powdered hemp into one of the stainless steel cylinders, closes it with a wrench, then taps away on the computer to begin the process. The oil is forced out under pressure at a low temperature and slowly drips into a stainless steel cylinder at the bottom of the machine. It looks like car oil, only it smells worse. The distinctive skunky odor is everywhere. “We honestly don’t notice it anymore,” Nick says.

Both couples have tried to explain to their kids exactly what goes on in this barn. Lucas recalled the day his son blurted out in the grocery store with childlike innocence, “Those people smell like hemp!”

They can make 10-pound batches at a time, which takes about a garbage can full of dried hemp. They bought the largest machine they could run at their house. Anything bigger and they’d need industrial-grade power. “It’s already doubled our electrical bill,” Jessica notes.

The first time they used the machine, Nick nervously watched it for hours. It clangs and bangs loudly, but there’s not much to see. Now he usually packs up the machine in the evening and lets it run overnight while they sleep.

The extraction yields about a quart of dark brown sticky oil like molasses, only stinkier. This goes into a large glass beaker filled with ethanol and heated over a flame. The ethanol separates the oil from excess fats and wax (which could potentially be used for lotions and salves, although Green Owl hasn’t yet found a market for it). The oil is then blended into coconut oil and bottled into little tincture bottles.

The equipment for the operation cost around $250,000, which Lucas hopes can be paid off in two years. The business seems promising. An ounce bottle sells for between $50 and $180, depending on the strength, which is a one-month supply for many people. They mainly sell it online, though they’re now in one retail store in Monona.

Few supplements are this pricey. How do consumers know they’re getting what they’ve paid for?

“People are out there selling stuff that is not tested,” Jessica says. “One of our friends was using CBD oil and she showed us the bottle and it was clear. There was no CBD in that product!”

According to Monica, every batch of their CBD oil is sent to a lab in Milwaukee for testing before being sold. It slows down their process, but “we’re not trying to break any land speed records,” Lucas adds. They know their growers personally, and they know exactly how much CBD is in every bottle. They also test for pesticide residue, heavy metals and THC content. “We’re trying to do things right,” he says, by making small batches slowly, testing, and refining their processes. “We think it will eventually be regulated.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t currently regulate CBD oil and there’s no established dosage or safety guidelines. Yet there’s already widespread awareness: a recent Harris Poll found 86 percent of U.S. adults surveyed had heard of CBD and nearly one in five had tried it.

The FDA does send warning letters to companies selling CBD products that make unfounded health claims on their websites. The list of ailments for which CBD manufacturers have claimed it’s been effective is long: arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, fibromyalgia, opioid and substance abuse disorders, cancer. But so far, the only thing it has been scientifically proven by the FDA to treat is a type of epileptic seizure.

Wisconsin lawmakers are also considering a bill, now being reviewed in a committee, that would prohibit people from “knowingly making an inaccurate claim about the content, quality, or origin of hemp or a hemp product.”

In some cases, the FDA has tested products and found them not to contain the levels of CBD advertised, or any CBD at all. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement last month that he’s “deeply concerned” about patients being “misled to forgo otherwise effective, available therapy and opt instead for a product that has no proven value or may cause them serious harm.”

The FDA has signaled its readiness to regulate CBD products, now that the DEA no longer considers them to be controlled substances. It is holding a public hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 31. More than 600 people have already submitted written comments, mostly consumers in favor of legalization and regulation. “CBD will save the world,” wrote one man from the state of Oregon.

The Green Owl Wellness owners say their customers mainly take it for back pain, joint pain and insomnia. “Sleep, anxiety and pain are definitely the top three,” says Monica.

“We’re hesitant to say that it can help you with these 55 different things,” she adds. “Why would it do that? How could it possibly do that?”

The CBD industry is booming, with shops sprouting up all over Madison. An ounce of the oil can fetch as much as $200. But in an industry will little regulatory oversight, it’s buyer beware.