Boris Shcharansky stresses that he’s no outlaw.
The Urbandale businessman is selling what he calls hemp oil — made from a plant that is closely related to marijuana. He knows his customers are using the oil to treat chronic ailments. But he swears he’s not peddling medical marijuana before Iowa lawmakers decide whether to legalize such sales.
“I’m not hiding in the shadows with this,” he said. “I’m totally out in the open.”
His company, Heartland Hemp, has a website from which customers can buy the oil. A local TV station did a glowing feature story in which a customer touted how the oil reduced her daughter’s seizures. A legislator even keeps a vial of the stuff on his Statehouse desk.
Iowa has a new law allowing possession of such oil by people with severe epilepsy, but the law makes no provision for distribution of the medication. So, is Shcharansky courting arrest?
He doesn’t think so. He says the oil is made from legally imported hemp materials from Eastern Europe. The oil has very little of the chemical THC, which makes recreational marijuana users high, Shcharansky said, but it contains relatively large amounts of cannabidiol, a chemical many patients believe can treat a range of maladies. He contends sales are not subject to the state’s new limited medical marijuana law, so customers don’t need new state-issued cannabis oil cards.
“We understand that this could be called a gray area, but we’re very comfortable where we sit in that gray area,” Shcharansky said.
Could Heartland Hemp be the pioneer in an Iowa cannabis oil sales industry, even without legislators’ permission? Shcharansky said he doubts many others will try his tactic, but he said they would be welcome.
State authorities won’t comment on whether Heartland Hemp’s sales are legal. But a federal drug enforcement official said she believes such sales would break federal law if the oil contains any THC and if it is intended for human consumption.
Karin Cato, a Midwest spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, disagreed with Shcharansky’s claim that his oil is equivalent to rope or cloth made out of hemp. “You’re not consuming rope,” Cato said.
Shcharansky is a common presence at the Statehouse, where he has lobbied for legalization of production and sale of hemp products. He said the main reason he decided to start selling hemp oil is to call attention to the need for it.
He said he has 10 to 50 customers who take the oil for a range of ailments. But he said he’s careful not to advertise that it cures anything specific. He noted that the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters last month to several companies for claiming that their cannabis products could treat specific conditions, including cancer and schizophrenia. In some cases, the agency said, it tested the products and found that they didn’t actually contain cannabidiol, also known as CBD.
Shcharansky said that before opening his business, he ran the idea past several state government agencies, including the Governor’s Office on Drug Control Policy. Although they didn’t sign off on it, they didn’t tell him it was illegal, either, he said.
The Register had a similar experience. The Governor’s Office on Drug Control Policy declined to comment on the legality of Heartland Hemp’s wares. The Iowa attorney general’s office punted the question to the Dallas County attorney, who probably would decide whether to prosecute Shcharansky under state law. The county attorney didn’t respond to Register requests for comment.
Cato, the DEA spokeswoman, agreed with Shcharansky that the subject is murky. She said that’s especially true in states that allow sales of cannabis oil – which Iowa does not. The Obama administration has stated publicly that it has no intention of arresting people for activities that follow state medical marijuana laws.
Shcharansky pointed out that health food stores routinely sell hemp seeds, containing trace amounts of THC, which are intended for people to eat. If those are legal, he said, his oil should be too. When asked about that point, Cato referred the Register to a national spokesman for the DEA, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Heartland Hemp buys its oil from a California firm, Cannavest, which declined comment on the Iowa connection. A legal opinion released by Cannavest’s lawyer cites federal court rulings and hemp laws dating as far back as 1937 to buttress the company’s contention that sales of its oil are legal because the product is derived from legally imported, low THC hemp.
Shcharansky’s long-range goal is to grow hemp in Iowa and sell it for a range of uses including making textiles and oil. He persuaded several lawmakers to sponsor a bill this year that would have legalized hemp production in Iowa, but the bill failed to clear a legislative deadline earlier this month. He said he’ll be back next year, trying again.
State Rep. John Forbes, an Urbandale Democrat who works as a pharmacist, was a sponsor of the bill. He said more than 20 states already have such laws, and he sees no threat from having hemp raised in Iowa. “Somebody told me that if you smoke it, all it would do is give you a headache,” he said.
Forbes said the plant could offer an economic-development tool if used for industrial purposes, such as making textiles. He supports making marijuana legal for legitimate medical purposes, and he keeps a vial of Heartland Hemp’s product on his Statehouse desk as “kind of a show-and-tell piece.” But he said he would hesitate to recommend that any customers of his pharmacy buy it now to treat ailments. “I don’t know exactly where it was produced and I don’t know if the claims about it are valid, so I probably would throw a little bit of caution into what I would say to a customer about it,” he said.
Forbes said he believes it is legal for Heartland Hemp to sell hemp oil with trace amounts of THC. The legislator said other cannabis oils that are better known, such as those produced in Colorado, have a bit more THC and probably would not be legal here under the current law.
Heartland Hemp sells a 2.4 gram vial of its hemp oil for $280. The oil is given with an eye-dropper, similar to the way a parent would give a child other types of medication, Shcharansky said. A vial of it could last up to 45 days, depending on the dose, he said.
Iowa’s current medical marijuana law, which does not provide a way to distribute the medication, was passed after an intense lobbying effort last spring by parents of children with severe epilepsy. Those parents now want the law expanded to allow sales of the oil. Some of them are wary of Shcharansky’s product.
Sally Gaer of West Des Moines, one of the most prominent parent-lobbyists, said that before she gave such oil to her daughter, she would want to know more about where it was produced and exactly what’s in it. “My caution is for people to do their research,” said Gaer, who would prefer to see cannabis grown, produced, regulated and distributed in Iowa for people with medical conditions.
Shcharansky said he also would much prefer to produce such products here. In the meantime, he’ll keep selling vials of his hemp oil, and betting that no one will arrest him for it.