Greenville, SC (Greenville News) - Vincent Cardonna wants to make one thing clear, he is not making marijuana gummy bears or pot brownies. Yes, the Greenville-based master chocolatier is using a product derived from both hemp and marijuana, but his is a refined cannabis product, a treat to be enjoyed after a nice dinner, not at a college kegger.
Cardonna’s new line of specialty chocolates and caramels, Culinary Bake Delight, contain CBD (cannabidiol), the non-high inducing component of the cannabis plant. And, like Caradonna’s other treats, these are as beautiful as they are delicious.
“We don’t want it to be treated as vape or just another drug,” Caradonna said, taking a break from his bread baking and chocolate making at Le Petit Croissant on a recent morning. “We really want to take it to the next step and have people looking at the product another way.
CBD products are growing, thanks to the naturally occurring element in the cannabis plant’s purported health and wellness benefits. Proponents say CBD can help with pain management related to certain diseases and has a calming and relaxing effect.
But the legal landscape for a substance that is derived from the same plant as marijuana remains murky.
Caradonna is one of a budding lot of entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the growing CBD-related industry, which has doubled since last year and is projected to grow 10 times its current levels by next year.
The US Hemp CBD market grew from $327,385,059 in 2017 to $590,694,687 in 2018, according to research by the market research insights company, Brightfield Group.
“The numbers are huge,” said Jamie Schau, senior analyst with Brightfield Group. “There are mascaras, anti-aging creams, bug spray, a whole range of edible stuff — sparkling waters, gummies.
“Bars even are picking up on it, and in Oregon, there is a café doing mochas and coffees.”
The growth is driven in part by CBD’s purported medical benefits related to both mental and physical ailments. While the Food and Drug administration regulates CBD products labeled as beneficial to health, a World Health Organization study cited research on CBD in the treatment of seizures related to epilepsy. Of CBD’s potential addictiveness, the WHO study said, “there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD.”
Caradonna is hoping to bring an elevated approach to an industry that many may associate with college experimenting. Far from gummies, his line of CBD products is as beautiful as they are tasty.
And, they are legal, Caradonna said because he is using CBD derived from hemp, not marijuana. The former variety by definition contains no more than 0.3 percent THC.
Culinary Bake Delight’s products contain CBD that has 0 percent THC, Caradonna said, and so offer beneficial properties with no risk of a high.
“We were like chocolate is already a huge antioxidant product, good for your health and it keeps you young and gives you all kind of benefits for your body,” Caradonna said. “So, we were like why don’t we try to mix the two together and make a special line of chocolate to mix the both. It will be the ultimate treat pretty much.”
Navigating the legal landscape
Despite some gains and legal wins, that industry remains one that is highly regulated and still emerging. In June, the FDA approved the use of Epidiolex, a CBD-containing drug used in treating seizures in people with certain forms of epilepsy.
In response, the Drug Enforcement Agency in late September listed the drug as Schedule V, which allows usage within medical parameters, making Epidiolex the first FDA-approved drug to contain a purified extract from the cannabis plant.
CBD from marijuana is still considered a Schedule I substance (a substance considered highly addictive and to have no medical value), which means it incurs the same punishment as a marijuana violation, said Melvin Patterson, DEA spokesman,
“To me, if you’re a business owner it’s your responsibility to do your due diligence and make sure you’re on the right side of the law,” Patterson said.
“Now, is the DEA going to start knocking down walls and collecting French pastries?” Patterson asked. “That’s not going to happen. That’s not our target.”
The opioid crisis is of much bigger concern right now, Patterson said.
“We are expending all of our resources towards fighting an opioid crisis,” Patterson said. “We don’t really have the manpower to look at people that are violating CBD.”
State law is different. Technically, CBD oil is legal in South Carolina if it contains less than 0.3 percent THC, says Dr. Wendy Bell, Captain of Forensic Operations with the SLED Forensic Services Lab. So, products containing that amount of CBD are also legal within the state, she said, but regulation of such products, particularly food products remains murky.
“It’s a buyer beware situation right now,” Bell said. “People need to do their research on the products that they are using.”
SLED is solely looking at potential criminal activity, Bell said. Her lab is focused on ensuring THC levels of various products does not exceed the legal limit of 0.3 percent. SLED is not focused on other consumer safety aspects like pesticide level or sanitary production facilities, she said.
“What are their CBD sources? Are they using something pesticide free? Are they using products that are safe to go into food products?” Bell said of questions that often go unanswered. “Most people are trying to do the right thing, but there is just nobody regulating that industry.”
So far, Bell has seen products like beef jerky, brownies, cookies and gummy candy pass through her lab, almost all originating from somewhere outside South Carolina, all testing at varying levels of CBD. Most contain within the legal limit, she said.
Food products produced inside South Carolina and shipped to another state, crosses into federal territory, Bell said, meaning that it might be legal to sell to ship states with laws permitting marijuana and CBD but it is likely not legal to sell to states without such laws.
Caradonna is taking measures to ensure his product is safe and legal. He has sought the help of several lawyers and has done extensive research on laws and on CBD manufacturers. The company he uses provides lab testing reports indicating the exact amount of THC per weight in each shipment Caradonna receives.
And with the chocolate maker’s background in confectionery science, Caradonna said he has carefully calculated the amount of CBD in each product.
“I find a real pharmacy. They do all the testing and make sure that there is no interaction between their product and the result of the product,” Caradonna said. “This is solid. I wouldn’t work with them if not.”
A shifting tide
There are signs that things could shift.
For one, the 2014 Farm Bill included federal funds for hemp farming research. The bill permitted hemp cultivation among farmers that had been licensed by a state to cultivate hemp for research or for a pilot program. Farmers must be approved at the state level.
“And nobody clarifies cultivation versus commercialization,” Schau said.
So, CBD derived from hemp has been growing and is considered more or less legal, Schau said.
More about SC Hemp: Here's why a handful of innovative South Carolina farmers are going all in for hemp
South Carolina is one of the states with a Hemp pilot program. Currently, there are 20 farmers licensed to grow industrial hemp in the state, and the first SC-grown hemp has just been harvested.
Brightfield Group’s research shows the hemp market getting an even bigger boost in the 2018 Farm Bill, which is currently being debated in Congress. A provision within the bill would take hemp cultivation completely out of the purvey of DEA. The effort has bipartisan support, Schau said, and is being led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s home state of Kentucky has lots of former tobacco farmers that could stand to benefit greatly from hemp farming.
In April, McConnell tweeted about the proposed legislation calling hemp cultivation “a promising new market.”
For now, there is no definite on whether changes to the federal law will happen, but Brightside Group is betting on it, and they have assessed the market for CBD products in 2020 as over $11 billion.
“We see this as kind of an unstoppable train,” Schau said of the loosening of federal controls on hemp production. “It might be a little bit later than the end of this year, but one way or the other it’s bound to happen.”
Creating a finer product
Just one week into the soft launch of Culinary Bake Delight, and Caradonna already has more retail outlets. In addition to several local stores, Culinary Bake Delight items are available at stores in Florida, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania.
The chocolatier is passionate about distinguishing his products from others. For one, he says, his “gems,” as he calls the fine chocolate confections, meant to provide a refined treat after a meal or with coffee or tea.
Caradonna spent several weeks perfecting the formula for his chocolates. He uses the CBD that he gets from a Colorado-based dispensary, CBDistillery to make his own cocoa butter, which he then uses to create his chocolates.
He uses no artificial coloring or additives.
“I modify the recipes to find the perfect one and here we are,” Caradonna said of his R and D process. “And now, we have a product that is perfect, that is healthy, that is clean.”
Culinary Bake Delight chocolate has already been recognized on a national scale. Caradonna's gems were featured on a recent list of CBD treats for Halloween.
Plans call for creating more products in his CBD line soon. Caradonna is looking into infused olive oil next.
“It’s a high-end product, and we want it to be accessible to everybody,” Caradonna said.