A mural at HuxHemp CBD Apothecary gives customers a lesson in “Cannabinoids 101.” Credit: Andrea Michelson

The number one question CBD Kratom cofounder Dafna Revah hears at her stores is “Will I get high from this?”—and her customers are looking for the answer to be “no.” 

A couple years ago the idea of consuming cannabis without getting stoned might have sounded like a cruel joke. But recently, CBD, or cannabidiol, has been making headlines as the cure-all herbal supplement you didn’t know you needed. The compound, unlike its psychoactive sister THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), won’t get you high, but has been anecdotally reported to have calming and anti-inflammatory effects.

With legal weed within reach for Illinoisans, one might wonder if the CBD industry will disappear in a puff of smoke come January 1. But according to some of Chicago’s CBD business owners, CBD is more than the near beer of weed. There’s a real niche for customers who are seeking relief but need to be clearheaded at their day jobs, says Tom Fisher, owner of Botanic Alternatives in Logan Square.

Fisher opened Botanic Alternatives under the roof of his vape shop, formerly known as Cloud Vapor Lounge, in 2017. Since focusing his energy on CBD and rebranding his store accordingly, Fisher says he sees twice as many customers.

“No one ever complained that we were a vape shop, but now there’s so many more people interested in coming in and referring people,” Fisher said. “We get a lot more people who are just interested, like ‘Tell me more, I want to understand.’” 

Almost daily, Fisher fields questions about whether there’s another transformation in the cards for Botanic Alternatives: a shift toward selling recreational cannabis. For Fisher, the short answer is no. There’s too much money, risk, and red tape required to go the recreational route—though he’s closer to a dispensary license than most would-be cannabis entrepreneurs.

Fisher’s business has been around for half a decade if you count the Cloud years (the vape lounge opened in 2014). He has a brick-and-mortar store that is already compliant with zoning requirements for a tobacco license, which are similar to dispensary regulations. Factor in 7,000 customers who are already buying hemp products, and it’s not surprising that Fisher has investors flying in from all over the country who see Botanic Alternatives as a gateway to obtaining a dispensary license. 

“I will be listening,” said Fisher, who had a call with an investor scheduled for the day after we spoke. “But I don’t have any interest in people giving me money and saying, ‘Here’s your half a million liquid. You go through this whole process of trying to get the license,’ because honestly, I don’t want to run a dispensary. It’s not a passion of mine.”

Russell Huxhold, owner of HuxHemp CBD Apothecary on Southport, said he’s not interested in getting into the recreational market either. The apothecary primarily serves customers who are after the plant’s medicinal properties, including medical cannabis patients seeking a CBD supplement.

Huxhold said many of his customers dislike the high-THC cannabis sold in medical dispensaries. In recent years, the cannabis plant has been bred to consist of “mostly THC,” he says. High THC content is great if you’re looking to get high, but for users seeking relief from ailments such as inflammation or anxiety, he said a full-spectrum product that contains THC, CBD, and some of the lesser-known cannabinoids is best.

“The past ten years of growing the plant have gone backwards in the science,” Huxhold said. “It really isn’t as health beneficial as it was in the past.”

However, Huxhold can’t make any certain claims about the efficacy of CBD products—no one can. Without a stamp of approval from the FDA, CBD is a dietary supplement much like cod liver oil or echinacea. 

Dann Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said in the current market, hemp-derived CBD is “completely unregulated.”

“There’s no quality controls, there’s no testing requirements,” Linn says. “Just about anybody can get into the [CBD] business, and it’s just a matter of what type of ethics or integrity you have with knowing exactly what it is that you’re selling to folks for potential health benefits.”

Compared to the highly regulated recreational and medical cannabis industries, the CBD market is like the Wild West of weed. With virtually no quality control regulations on CBD products, Huxhold said it’s up to business owners like himself to deliver a safe, effective product: Will they choose to be cowboys or bandits?

“There is a little bit of gold rush, so companies are popping up just to financially benefit,” Huxhold said. “So where do you stop that? As a [wholesale seller], do you do it more on the legality side and test everything there? Do you do it on the store level where it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m not going to sell bad product?”

For Huxhold, Fisher, and Revah, the answer is in how they stock their products. The three business owners all emphasized that they take product quality seriously. Huxhold and Fisher say they won’t sell anything they haven’t tried themselves. Revah says CBD Kratom has a team dedicated to finding the best products for their more than 20 locations.

When considering whether to apply for a dispensary license down the line, Revah said CBD Kratom’s careful product selection process is a factor in the decision. She said a lot of people assume CBD Kratom will start carrying THC products in the future, but the team is waiting to see what kinds of products will be on the market. Any THC products they would consider carrying have to meet the business’s standards and serve their customers’ interests—and remember, their customers don’t want to get high.

In selling CBD to customers who don’t want an intoxicating effect, Revah has found that there’s a place for both CBD and THC in the industry.

“I don’t think that they’re in competition with each other at all,” Revah said. “If anything, I think they’ll just better supplement one another and make more people aware of the benefits of both hemp and marijuana.”  v