OMAO, Kauai — Daryl Kaneshiro sits in a small all-wheel-drive vehicle looking out on his 4-acre field of industrial hemp, destined to be refined into cannabidiol oil, better known as CBD, and incorporated into products that claim an astounding array of health benefits.
To Kaneshiro — and Ray Maki, another hemp farmer from Moloaa, Kauai — Hawaii may soon shift away from a restrictive regulatory system to the free market model relied upon in most of the country. Currently, Hawaii growers can’t even legally move harvested hemp from one farm to another.
They say the state has squandered a leadership role in hemp cultivation it could have had.
But they hope the Legislature, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the Hawaii Department of Health will move decisively in the first half of 2020 to liberalize the state’s approach to hemp and open markets dramatically so local farmers can take advantage.
Action in the Legislature, however, would not address underlying questions, raised by experts all over the country, about whether CBD oil — the primary end product Hawaii hemp farmers want to produce — has the multiple health benefits claimed for it. One expert suggested that question won’t be resolved for a decade, if not longer.
Maki is president and Kaneshiro vice president of the Hawaii Hemp Farmers Association which formed last year in part to bring pressure on the Legislature, regulators and Gov. David Ige to make it easier for growers here to realize the full potential of the crop. Industrial hemp is from the same plant family as marijuana but must contain so little of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol that it’s impossible to get high.
Maki said the association was formed out of frustration with the pace at which Hawaii was embracing hemp in the legal and regulatory contexts. He said the state has imposed conditions on hemp farmers here that don’t apply in most of the rest of the country and that have made it virtually impossible for the Hawaii industry to succeed.
“We saw the need (for the association) right away because the relationship with the state and this crop has been so delayed and so confused that we needed a structure that could work with a commodity group,” he said. “We’re representing a legal crop.”
Dating to about 2013, Kaneshiro said states like Oregon and Colorado, leaders in the national marijuana legalization movement, “adopted rules that supported their (hemp) farmers and built billion-dollar industries in their states. Hawaii could never get any traction to bring rational rules to the program.”
Although there are four Kauai farms licensed to grow hemp under the Department of Agriculture’s industrial hemp pilot program, Maki and Kaneshiro say they are the only two actively farming the crop now. Statewide, there are 37 licensed farms. Although mainland growers are allowed to build combined processing facilities and drying centers and freely move products from farm to farm or from farm to processing complex, Hawaii law and administrative rules are much more restrictive.
Kaneshiro, a former Kauai County Council member, is building a $2 million solar-powered hemp drying and CBD oil refining complex on his property in Omao. At the moment, however, no one but Kaneshiro can store or process hemp there. He said his facility will be completed early in 2020.
One day last week, more than a dozen construction workers crowded the complex, which includes three buildings and a large hillside solar farm. Kaneshiro’s facility is large enough to accept volumes of hemp from several different farms and it’s clear he is gambling that Hawaii’s rules will relax soon.
To that end, Kaneshiro and Maki have hosted members and staff from at least two committees of the Legislature, as well as Ige, on tours of their farms. They have gotten sympathetic attention from several legislators, including Rep. Nadine Nakamura, a Kauai Democrat. Nakamura met with both farmers a couple of weeks ago to discuss particulars of legislation most observers expect to be introduced in Honolulu early in 2020.
“The purpose of my meeting with hemp growers was to ensure the state is taking into account the needs of a budding industry that has the potential to boost agriculture on Kauai and throughout the state,” she said.
She said the Finance Committee, on which she sits, “visited the Kaneshiro Omao farm and was impressed with the operation.”
Maki’s organization welcomes the attention. “We just hope people can understand that this is an agricultural product no different than pineapple, sugar cane, bananas and avocados,” he said.
In the national battle over hemp during the last few years, proponents have argued that it is a highly versatile commodity that can be processed into a wide variety of materials. That includes building blocks for construction, rope, textiles, clothing, shoes, food, paper, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel.
But Maki and Kaneshiro say both of their farms are committed exclusively to production of hemp for CBD oil and related products for the health supplement industry.
Maki said high costs of production and factors involved in Hawaii’s climate make it difficult to focus on anything other than that segment of the hemp oil craze. CBD oil is a very concentrated, high-value product.
Maki is a true believer in the claimed health benefits of CBD oil and similar products — some of which do not yet exist but are anticipated for development in the next few years. Maki said he was drawn to “the medicine that’s created with this plant. I’ve personally just in sampling it watched numerous people say, ‘Wow, it really had an effect.’
“It has been life-changing, taking them off medications for conditions that they’ve been suffering for years. I watched a five-minute reaction like an old man, who’s running across the room with tears in his eyes. I thought he had an allergic reaction, but he had neuropathy on his hand and, five minutes after applying CBD oil, it took him off four medications.
“It’s a natural product. It’s a locally grown product. It’s a medicine that we can create ourselves as farmers that has a medical efficacy that makes it worth growing.”
But experts in a variety of medical fields question whether the claims made for CBD oil are documented by legitimate research or whether they are simply the product of anecdotal exaggeration from supporters of CBD as a cure-all for a variety of conditions.
Just on Kauai, for example, there are two stores that sell CBD oil and make a wide variety of claims for it, including, in one case, that it can cure cancer — or at least cause tumors to shrink. Other claims are that CBD oil can be used to treat psychiatric disorders and seizures. Those claims were on the website of Hula Maoli Kauai CBD Essentials in Hanapepe.
Raynette Yamamoto, who identified herself as Hula Maoli’s proprietor, said in an email: “I can testify that CBD helped me with all those things and more.”
The second store, Garden Isle CBD in Kapaa, also made a variety of health claims, but the listing was apparently removed from the store’s website after Civil Beat inquired about them. They included assertions that CBD is beneficial in treating traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease and autism. The store did not respond to an email inquiry.
At the moment, CBD has been cleared for the legal drug market for just one medical use: treating pediatric epilepsy.
A variety of drug abuse and drug politics experts said there is a yawning gap between the real or imagined benefits claimed for CBD and what has been confirmed by legitimate science.
Like many heavily promoted “miracle drugs” — the most prominent of which might be laetrile, a universally debunked quack cancer cure — CBD’s health pedigree appears driven more by anecdote and commercial exploitation than by clinical documentation.
“In a nutshell, the enthusiasm for CBD has definitely outpaced the science,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, of Harvard Medical School and author of the book “Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction.” “The only thing for which it has been proven effective is pediatric epilepsy.
“There are animal studies for pain, insomnia and anxiety, but animal studies do not always pan out. It’s evidence, but not definitive evidence. It’s quite suggestive and if you add the animal studies and anecdotes, it’s pretty convincing, but you can’t say that it works.”
Grinspoon said CBD research has operated at a disadvantage because hemp remains under the same legal restrictions that apply to marijuana, so researchers must get government research permits and licenses that are not necessary for many other prospective drugs.
“We’re not going to get the answers to these questions overnight,” Grinspoon said. Some of the claims, he said, may turn out to be “probably true, in 10 years.”
Dr. Davey Smith, of the University of California at San Diego Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health, said that aside from the use in pediatric epilepsy, “nothing else is supported by research. That does not mean that new indications will not be found, just that new research needs to be performed. Right now, there is a bunch of hype that CBD can cure a bunch of stuff, but there is no scientific evidence for it.”
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