How Your Hemp CBD Oil Was Made (Early 2019 Perspective)
An informative article written early 2019 to help consumers understand what's going on, and where their industrial hemp CBD oil or concentrates come from.
Yes! we’re on the cusp of a TRILLION $$$ American Hempire.
It's ticking and ready to explode (as predicted just before hemp farming prohibition kicked off in the 30s) with the passage of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. Miraculously, as if a master of the universe suddenly flipped a switch cannabis hemp CBD-dominant concentrates are going to be...everywhere (...again)!
No kidding folks, hemp oils and extracts are quickly becoming as common as they once were before our modern petrol era.
Throughout 2018 alone my entire circle of non-hemp-related entertainment/information sources like podcasters and YouTubers have or are currently talking about hemp CBD. Or, they’re among the initial wave of online Hemp Industry Affiliates helping American brands get products discovered. Hemp plant tinctures (not hemp seed oil) now sit on the shelves in the local co-op down the street, there’s lavender-scented Hemp CBD soap in my tub sold by a local company, I read articles about how millennials absolutely adore vaping hemp CBD because it’s non-intoxicating yet highly therapeutic, and as a freelance writer I’ve witnessed a client’s webstore where she sells full spectrum hemp extracts go from ZERO revenue generation in 2014 to skirting 6-figures in annual sales headed into 2019...and she represents a rather small operation.
Wow... all that being said [/breathe], in this article, I’d like to do what I can to help anyone interested answer one seemingly simple question as they’re holding an industrial hemp tincture in their hand in 2019-2020 wondering…’How did they make this stuff?’ and the logical follow-up question, ‘Where’d it come from?’
Let’s get to it.
Part #1: The Hemp Plants
Okay, before the industrial hemp-derived CBD market exploded between approximately 2012-2014, there was absolutely a 100% legal international hemp trade - primarily construction and textiles from fiber, and foodstuffs from seed. The market never totally died. U.S. Government bodies may have successfully outlawed domestic farming of industrial hemp starting in the 30s, but demand for hemp never went completely away. Numbers from recent years put hemp imports around the $600-800 million annually and climbing. My entire life (nearly 40 years now…) I’ve always been able to purchase and drink hemp seed milk, or wear a hemp shirt, or use hemp rope, eat toasted hemp seed, or cook with hemp seed oil.
What’s crazy is, when from stalk, concentrates may never have been illegal either - primarily because it makes no economic sense to derive concentrates or phytocannabinoid-rich extracts from stalk and stem, thereby keeping the market near nonexistent. They may have been around, but not as they were when cannabis tinctures were the 2nd or 3rd most commonly used herbal medicine around the globe for centuries.
Drug War laws made it so you couldn't sell hemp extract derived from hemp flower. These were outlawed.
Yet throughout the prohibition era of the 19th and 20th centuries, in the background cannabinoids were being isolated and identified along with some of the most basic components of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). One could argue demand was eradicated by a collection of very powerful corporate/political actors, shall we say, who felt it in their best interests if the American public were kept away from and unaware of cannabinoids.
It's only thanks to the scientific developments out of Europe and Israel that ECS science was allowed out of the closet across the pond.
Not until the 2012-2015 epoch on the back of the ‘Medical Marijuana’ explosion and initial demand for CBD did hemp return to the limelight. People wanted CBD and the 'entourage effects' of cannabis extracts, rightly so, but getting it from marijuana created an assortment of local, state, and federal problems. This led providers and others involved in the cannabis movement to ask themselves...
“Wait a sec, what about hemp?”
Anyone who farms the stuff knows it comes down to genetics. 'Cannabis' can be either a wide variety of psychoactive strains, what most people today understand as marijuana, or non-intoxicating fiber-class hemp - all being determined in general by THC content. Legally and genetically, these are two very different plants. In the field/greenhouse it's about the seed you're planting that determines the usage of the plant - fiber, seed, hurd, and flower.
If you've ever seen the cover of 'High Times Magazine' you know what the focus of the marijuana-cannabis plant is - specifically and pretty much ONLY the flowers/buds. With hemp-cannabis, the plants look similar to marijuana, but for fiber you'll have slim hemp plants with long tall stalks that at the base of the trunk can look like a baseball bat, while for high-CBD content they'll be shorter, thinner a even more similar to marijuana to the untrained/non-farmer's eye <---this is going to create some interesting and convenient testing solutions to conform to post-2018 Farm Bill laws. They'll likely be quite distinct from state-level marijuana laws.
Anyways...before the 2012-2015 epoch, honestly, CBD was a well-kept secret. America's need for marijuana finally blew the doors open and without warning demand for CBD spiked. It hasn’t let up one once! It’s increasing double-digit every year as these words are being typed. I believe it was 40% in 2017 when you look at all three potential sources of cannabidiol - Marijuana, Hemp, and Pharmaceutical - estimated to be a multi-billion dollar market by the early 2020s.
So, just like that, you’ve got HUGE demand for CBD from American consumers that needs by necessity to be purchasable online and mailed legally across state borders like any other hemp product with less than 0.3% THC, in Europe it’s 0.2%. Thanks to what likely amounts to a few rooms full of well-connected and funded people (including the hempster associations, doctors, non-profits, activists, and so forth), the public began being made aware of, and offered by a select few at scale, hemp-derived full spectrum tinctures which claimed to be high in CBD, but non-intoxicating and within legal grey areas.
2014 was a game-changer thanks to the 2014 Farm Bill provisions that got Hemp Farming Pilot Programs started.
Note: In the centuries-old relationship between Americans and hemp stretching into history far beyond our colonial era, it's worth noting the end of 20th-21st century hemp farming prohibition will have taken place through two Farm Bills: one in 2014 signed by Democratic President Barack Obama, which paved the way to the 2018 'ender' bill signed by Republican President Donald Trump.
Did Drug War Era U.S. agencies protest? Oh yeah... some letters were sent, and news of a few raids circulated (still occasionally hear about shipments getting seized at the state/international borders and packages taken from the mail system)...but that’s about it. Customs has made life hard for initial hemp farmers as well, but generally speaking, there was and still has never been a serious 'enforcement' crackdown on the fledgling American hemp ‘CBD’ industry by any federal agency.
It was a rocky couple years once hemp CBD began going viral, with some seriously bad press for a couple big names in the new and largely unregulated industry (at the top connected to the major players in medical marijuana). Questions arose about cleanliness and sourcing, some bad test results came in from government agencies, and yeah. Sheesh! I saw it through the prism of clients as a freelance writer and private consumer of cannabis products.
The precise infrastructure is extremely hard to nail down. If you haven't noticed yet, I'm not a trained hempstorian lol. But, I can tell you for certain two big chunks of the infrastructure it takes to put industrial hemp tinctures in your hand existed when all this was going down.
1 - International Hemp Farms
While over the last couple years industrial hemp farming has begun a slow reintegration into 10-15'ish states, generally speaking here’s what the global supply of industrial hemp looked like between 2012-2015 (notice there’s NO established industrial hemp farming infrastructure in the U.S.). They shaded the entire U.S., but it's more like just a couple little spots.
These darker-colored nations [I'm color blind as a bat] not only had the crops already in the ground producing hemp for fiber and seed, but the machinery it takes to further process the plant material and break it down into its various consumer, industrial, textile, and construction-based applications.
Point is, here in the U.S. everything was imported until Colorado became the MIGHTY CHAMPION of our U.S. hemp movement out west around 2012-2014. Then between 2014-2018 Colorado went from 1,400 registered acres of hemp to 17,000 in 2016; from a handful of growers to 600 farmers participating at roughly 750 locations throughout the state. That growth hasn't let up, and out east states like Kentucky followed suit under the 2014 Farm Bill.
We may never know how much was really coming from international sources and how much was supplied by domestic sources in Colorado and a couple other states. My suspicion is most larger hemp CBD brands imported internationally because it was cheaper at that time, and partly because Colorado even still lacks enough extractors to supply the level of demand the larger brands represent(ed).
Note: What I'm saying is, for the majority of consumers during the initial years 2012-2018 chances are either the extract or the plant material was imported. There hasn't been near enough domestic supply to satisfy demand, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Today, Colorado has seven varieties of certified industrial hemp seed. When all this began, most everything was being imported from outside the country except on the more small business side of things (not including affiliates for the larger brands). They could afford to get it from domestic sources, while larger brands couldn't. Think about it from a banking perspective... regardless, as we got closer to 2019, a bigger and bigger percentage was coming from U.S. sources. I'd bet on it. Such a fantastic development!
On another note, this era of hemp CBD demand helped fuel a European hemp renaissance as well. The relationship between America and Europe in terms of hemp hasn't been this strong since WW2.
2 - Food Processing Abilities
What we did have in the states is the ability to extract compounds from plant material, or raw plant extracts. A method taking off in medical marijuana at the time for example was supercritical CO2 extraction, also a popular method in the mainstream herbal nutraceutical world. Companies just needed to import the raw plant material or crude plant extract under the law and it could easily be processed in similar ways to both what marijuana companies were using as well as seed-based foodstuff or herbal product manufacturers used. We’ll get more into this extraction method in the Part 3.
For hemp though, processing was pretty centralized. There weren't a whole lot of processors, and even in 2017 some of the top hemp states still lacked basic machinery like hemp decorticators or non-modified hemp farming equipment. In fact, it's still the case today.
Point being - bam, demand ramped up and a handful of big corporations led the way because they had the capital to import either a consumer-ready concentrate, utilize processing equipment already in place through big suppliers here in the states, or invest in their own (can run $35,000’ish for one machine on the low-end), and the market continues its upward climb. Again, like a switch went off, the amount of hemp being imported for this specific purpose went off the rails!
As we waltz into 2019 it's one of the biggest drivers, and the most lucrative reason to farm hemp. This will change dramatically over the next decade as hemp fiber and seed begin to take their slices of the cannapie.
Part #2: Domestic vs International
So much was coming in, that at the same time, as mentioned a handful of states began passing initial legislation under the 2014 Farm Bill establishing hemp Pilot Programs concerning industrial hemp farming to ‘investigate its viability as a commercial crop’ which is absolutely ridiculous - hemp was a commercial crop the human world considered invaluable, a necessity, for many, many thousands upon thousands of years. Colorado and Kentucky, but more so Colorado, led the charge.
Right now it’s hard to say where the original hemp your tincture is made of came from. Within a few years the answer will more often than not be America. Between 2012-2018 it could've been any number of European countries, perhaps India or China (less likely), or despite it being illegal it may have derived from plants grown in Colorado, Oregon, or even Kentucky. Unless the supplier explicitly tells you, and proves it somehow it’s difficult to know.
From my perspective, we could sort of break down sources of hemp like this:
China/India = Textiles
Europe/America = Plant-Based Concentrates/Extracts High in CBD
Europe = Construction Materials (ex. Hempcrete)
Canada = Hemp Seed Foodstuffs & Hemp Seed Oil
This dynamic is changing fast. 2019-2020 will be very exciting, especially with the ongoing 'trade wars' and the fact China has been a major producer of hemp for millennia.
Note: within short order American hemp could be dominating all sectors if we play our cards right. Yet again, American hemp will be prized globally.
A huge development is likely to take place in Canada where there’s already a longstanding and extremely well-structured industrial hemp farming system. They’ve got it all. But, it’s a bit different when you talk about growing hemp for seed or fiber vs. plant-based extracts. The evolution is coming though because they’ve recently become the first major world economy to legalize recreational marijuana, so their CBD market is about to go stratospheric.
Part #3: Processing & Extraction
As we enter 2019, chances are the hemp plants used to make your tincture were specifically bred for higher CBD content than under ‘normal’ or natural circumstances. There’s really no choice because the prohibition era actually killed off a lot of what were ANCIENT cultivars of industrial hemp - oops, no one bothered to save their genetic information. So sad! Makes me furious... thus modern farmers and hempsters alike are having to use what was left (basically wild hemp) and the established cultivars in other countries used for many purposes to engineer new breeds to handle public demand for hemp plant extracts - with increasing demand for other non-psychoactive cannabinoids like Cannabinol (CBN) and Cannabigerol (CBG).
This is happening everywhere, rapidly, as rapidly as we saw it develop in the medical cannabis industry between 2012-2016+ where innumerable new strains were engineered and tweaked which have likely NEVER been on the world stage before.
All this evolving plant genetics to focus on specific chemical profiles in high demand.
CO2 Extraction Gone Wild
Whether the company imported the plants and then processed them here in the states, purchased crude hemp concentrate and processed that here instead, or it’s all being farmed, processed and packaged inside/outside the country...odds are the plant concentrate itself is the result of a process called CO2 Extraction.
Simple Explanation: Specialized CO2 extraction machines freeze and compress - increasing temperature and pressure - CO2 gas into a ‘supercritical’ cold liquid state, vs its solid form which most people have seen - dry ice. Through complex minor adjustments, this icy cold liquid CO2’s solubility can vary and extract specific or a combination of compounds. After extraction, decreasing pressure allows the liquid to return to a gaseous state and evaporate.
First, lest you forgot, CO2 is Carbon Dioxide, the same gas our bodies create when we exhale. Because of this fact, using supercritical CO2 is considered a safe, green and natural technology. Companies involved in cannabis, both hemp and marijuana, are especially interested because it’s an efficient method of preserving/extracting/isolating/concentrating thermosensitive compounds in the plant - of primary concern are the neutral-form (haven’t been heated or decarboxylated yet) phytocannabinoids like CBD, CBN and CBG along with the synergistic terpenes and flavonoids, and other organoleptic properties that enhance sight and smell value.
Keep in mind, at this point only about 4 out of over 110 cannabinoids that can occur in both hemp and marijuana have gone mainstream’ish. At any rate, this is a great way to take the plant material and either break it down into its unique parts without hurting them to isolate for study, or to create a clean concentrate without contaminants like fungi, molds, mildew, waxes or residues, heavy metals or other toxins. To a degree, it neutralizes any argument that hemp tinctures are risky because hemp is a natural bioaccumulator, or a plant that absorbs and cleans up the environment it’s planted in.
Make no mistake, as we enter this new dawn I’m confident a solid percentage of the industrial hemp tinctures being sold by a small army of brands are of good-to-high quality. Are their ingredient labels and cannabinoid potencies displayed on these products 100% accurate across the board? No, probably not. However, the infrastructure or supply chain needed to put the tincture in your hand via online, or increasingly retail spaces, has been somewhat ironed out. Not to mention enough money’s been made now to clearly see what the masses are choosing.
Here’s a simple graph showing the process of using supercritical CO2, time, heat and pressure. The industrial hemp, or marijuana, is in the Extractor - bottom right. When the liquid passes through, it pulls the trichomes containing neutral cannabinoids, terpene oils and so forth out. The Separator then can be used to further break these down into either their constituent parts or a clean ‘full spectrum’ concentrate.
Part #4: Mom, Pops, Startups, & Billionaires
What got the industrial hemp industry into the limelight (vs. behind the scene in industries like tobacco) between 2012-2014? The demand for CBD and full spectrum extracts. Who really helped get things going? A small handful of corporations and individuals with funding who recognized there was room within the laws to get it from industrial hemp and sell it to consumers via ecommerce.
I suspect the overall curvature of the industry hasn’t changed much where 1-5 brands command a decent percentage of the pie, say 30-50%, and the rest is carved out slice by slice by a large and growing list of small startups. Beyond that you have a new wave of startup brands and small teams looking to seize upon the legalization of American hemp farming.
A couple things to consider:
Conventional online advertising has been closed off to hemp extract suppliers - Facebook ads, Google, Instagram, Amazon, etc. This forced suppliers to build their own ecommerce sites and use other means of marketing. What happens now is anyone's guess, but with federally-backed banks and lending institutions, hemp ecommerce is likely to become a gargantuan sector between 2020-2025. Hopefully Amazon doesn't own it...
The vast majority of marketing happening in the hemp CBD industry was/is referral-based. I’d estimate around 80% of the people who purchase hemp tinctures, hemp CBD gummies or full spectrum hemp capsules online do so after a close friend, family member, or associate tried it and advised they do the same. In terms of seed oil products, that's another story.
The amount of online reviews and testimonials about hemp extracts over the last 3 or 4 years have increased 10-fold: social media, ecommerce widgets, forums, and in comment sections below relevant web articles and blogs. Online anecdotal evidence and social proofing helped drive ecommerce between 2012-2015 in the hemp extract sector.
Is using a hemp extract product pure gambling? No, not at all, not when you purchase from a polished brand who focuses on lab tests and transparency (extraction increasingly likely to happen either in-house or domestically), there’s a good chance it’s a high-quality product.
Here's a very generalized overview of the 2017 consumer sales of hemp products from the Hemp Business Journal:
Note: That number for Hemp CBD is a very conservative and misleading number in my opinion. Knowing the total number of sales across the ecommerce sector is impossible. I’d estimate the actual number is double to triple that when all’s said and done.
As I mentioned, HUGE players have risen to help when it comes to these steps in terms of getting the hemp plants through extraction and processing, then on into lab work and testing. Both here in the states, as well as in primarily European partner countries.
Marijuana-cannabis companies are big heroes in this respect (I say this lightly). If we look to New Frontier, this chart shows where lots of money is not only going but coming from within the sector. They're major sources, big supporters on multiple levels, and playing vitals roles in consumer education.
Part #5: The Online Hemp CBD Environment Late 2018
Being a freelance writer within the industrial hemp industry really opened my eyes and made me aware of all this. Would I be using hemp extracts if I never met clients in the market? Sure! Like others I would’ve tried it via referral and reached an appreciation for this kind of herbal nutrition/therapeutic approach.
My perspective of the industrial hemp ecommerce world is through this prism - I worked for a handful of hemp companies between 2014-2018: two or three affiliate brands just private labeling a big supplier’s concentrates who themselves sourced from Europe, and one or two who imported from smaller European suppliers/farming operations with labs. From there the raw concentrate comes into the U.S. where it’s processed, lab tested again, manufactured and sold. Increasingly though, clients are sourcing from Colorado, Kentucky, and Oregon.
Now that industrial hemp farming is legal in the U.S., smaller companies are afraid that within a couple years major corporations will be selling these products on supermarket shelves. How will they compete if Amazon/Whole Foods-level brands get involved? Again, Whole Foods has the entire supply chain 110% figured out, all that would need to be plugged in are the hemp extract suppliers and brands. Who’s going to dominate the fitness industry and how long will it be before I see hemp CBD supplements being sold in my gym? My client’s small businesses have somehow managed to survive 2012-2018, but that’s arguably because the establishment never FULLY got into the game - they seemed to be waiting for legislative changes that put them in power positions.
Consider online advertising. Once the floodgates are opened, who will dominate Google ads? Will the costs of these ads get to the point smaller brands can’t compete? Or, will there be more than enough demand for hemp farming to go around in north America (U.S. + Canada) by 2025?
Try to support the smaller hemp brands online, and watch for hemp farming in your area of the U.S. over the next couple years. The U.S. supply of hemp plant extract is going to be huge, so support those steering clear of importing from international sources outside scientific research purposes which are sorely needed.
More than likely, hemp tinctures being sold by brands who’ve been in the game for years (or are well-connected to good suppliers) are of good quality regardless if they come from US hemp or from abroad.
Do your homework, consider only dealing with transparent brands who share their lab testing and extraction methods. This isn't going to be an issue for consumers in short order. Massive amounts of resources are already in motion to ensure all hemp products (and the plants they derive from) for human consumption are of high, primarily organic, food-quality standards.
I really hope this has helped answer some questions and provide insight into where things have been, are now, and given recent developments where they’re likely to go. Is it the complete picture? No. Attempting to fit in every single aspect and each tiny detail of the narrative wasn’t appealing to me in this context. Maybe someday I’ll write a contemporary history of hemp book. Nonetheless, from a newbie consumer’s perspective this should help put the bigger picture together in terms of the industrial hemp CBD extracts out there. By all means, please leave a comment and weigh in!