Classified federally as a drug
Hemp has a long history in American agriculture, but it's gone underutilized since becoming the collateral damage of marijuana prohibition.
Even now, hemp remains federally classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic.
But it's one of the most promising cash crops to replace tobacco in North Carolina, with the potential to stimulate the textile, farming and retail sectors.
That's in part what helped push the passage of a 2014 farm bill, which paved the way for states to mandate whether farmers could plant hemp as part of a Department of Agriculture-guided pilot program.
"This is a resilient plant, very durable plant, and we're learning that it's doing well in our soil, which we didn't really learn until people started planting it," said Blake Butler, executive director of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Association, which has more than 1,100 members.
But, like many investments with potentially good returns, growing hemp can be a risky endeavor.
Its federal classification makes it impossible for farmers to protect their hemp with federal crop insurance, Butler said. "The State Farms of the world are not going to issue a policy. We had one farmer who lost it all — $50,000, his entire crop."
The Hemp Association hopes to build up a farmers' assistance fund. But for now, hemp farmers are largely twisting in the wind in the face of natural disasters.
That hasn't stopped 416 North Carolina farmers from planting industrial hemp so far, with close to 50 of them in Western North Carolina. "Last year, we only had five people planting hemp west of Charlotte," Butler said.
The N.C. pilot program has also allowed many supplements from local industrial hemp to flood the market.
By next year, Butler expects Asheville will have about two dozen dispensaries and other hemp-related retail businesses.
CBD could be a $2 billion market
If all goes as planned, North Carolina could corner the market on a swiftly growing industry, said Bullman. "Ultimately, CBD alone is looking to be a $2 billion market within just a couple of years."
Carolina Hemp Co., one of the largest distributors of hemp products in the Southeast, will soon open a storefront at 290 Haywood St., where there are already multiple businesses carrying CBD products.
But there's plenty of growth still to come in this hot hemp market, said Bullman, who said Asheville is a market leader in hemp production and use. He mentioned the city's inventory of hemp bio-composite, or "Hempcrete" homes, plus multiple CBD dispensaries opening all over the city.
Carolina Hemp Co. already has a Woodfin storefront at 406 Elk Park Drive. His new 1,400-square-foot West Asheville retail space will likely be open in early December, selling CBD oils, flowers and food products.
It will also be devoted to other hemp products and culture, with hemp fabric sold by the yard and tutorials on how to stretch and paint hemp canvas.
An adjacent unit will serve as a shipping area and administrative offices, useful for the company's thriving consulting arm.
"The name of the company causes lot of people to call us and say, 'Hey, I want to grow hemp,'" Bullman said.
The business illustrates well the web of industries advocates say the resurgence of industrial hemp can activate.
In what the company calls a "seed-to-sale synergy," Carolina Hemp's own CBD brand, Carolina Hemp Naturals, brings together local farmers, botanical extractors and retailers.
The hemp is grown in North Carolina and manufactured by Asheville Botanicals, an extraction company in Biltmore Village.
Hemp's potential for textile industry
Beyond CBD, some also see in hemp a vision of the revival of long-dead textile mills.
Mirroring the Slow Food movement, conscious sourcing is becoming big in the fashion industry, said Jill Lieberman, co-founder of HempX and Butler's partner in Adapt Public Relations.
A rough fabric, hemp would do well in blends, or as a cloth for greener jeans, she said.
"Then all of a sudden, you're telling a whole new story about the North Carolina farmer and the things he's growing," added Butler.
The infrastructure to process hemp into fiber and other useful goods would take serious capital investment, he noted. Though empty textile plants dot the South, plenty of workers with textile experience remain, he added.
Bullman said he thinks hemp's potential to help farmers, retailers and other workers has helped raise its stock among conscious consumers.
"People have grabbed onto the concept that we can do significant good, from the farmer right up to the retailer, and put power back in the people's hands, and out of the corporate monopoly that is now the source for so many goods."
A replacement for pharmaceuticals?
Bullman's customer profile is a good yardstick of CBD's mass appeal in that his customers don't fit any particular profile at all.
There are elderly customers, yoga teachers, mothers with kids suffering from behavioral issues.
It's partially word of mouth that's driven hemp from its place on the fringe to the mainstream; it's even now on the shelves at Walmart.
Advocates claim — loudly — that CBD products are effective replacements for many traditional medications, and studies are beginning to show the effects of CBD, particularly on pain, are no placebo.
Findings recently published in the Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain indicate low doses of CBD provide relief from pain and anxiety.
And then there's Mike Rangel's 14-year-old Labrador retriever.
Rangel said his dog's aches and pains have been so relieved by CBD products, he's become a "spastic puppy" again, with the strength to jump on the bed and tip over the garbage can.
The longtime owner of Asheville Pizza and Brewing, Rangel has recently immersed himself in the world of CBD.
He and a group of co-owners opened Two Moons CBD dispensary at 707 Merrimon Ave., and another opens next week at 611 Tunnel Road, suite C, next to Play It Again Sports.
Rangel was moved to get into the business after enjoying CBD's effects on his migraines and a persistent knee injury that nearly had him sidelined from soccer.
But one of the biggest draws, he said, was CBD's use as an alternative to opioid pain medications.
"We have a young crew, and we've had a couple of our employees in the past couple of years who have gone down the opioid path — and one didn't make it back," he said.
Providing healthy pain relief is an immensely gratifying business model, Rangel added. "Rather than selling tater tots with queso and beers, this is something healthier, life transforming, pain relieving."
One popular product Rangel sells, among the kombucha, oils and bath bombs, is a CBD-infused water a local girl undergoing chemotherapy credited with ending her nausea.
Her dad came in and bought a few bottles, then returned for a case. "He just hugged us."
While Asheville Pizza and Brewing may have added plenty to the local landscape, "this is the difference between 'I love my pizza' and 'You've changed my life.'"