A small business owner in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, is suing the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office for what he says is his legal right to sell extracts of cannabidiol, a chemical found in hemp.
"Ultimately, we just decided, hey, we're gonna file a lawsuit or a restraining order, try to do something to get our product back because it's legal in the state of Georgia and all 50 states for the most part," Joe King, owner of the Shoppe, said in a phone interview.
A hearing was held Friday, and King said it lasted all day. He said he thinks the court case is going in his favor, and Judge Brian House of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit is expected to make a ruling within 30 days. King said he hopes to go back to selling CBD in his shop after the ruling.
Research compiled by Harvard University suggests CBD can help with anxiety, insomnia, chronic pain and help lower cravings for tobacco and heroin. Research continues, but the fact that most CBD is sold as a supplement - not medication - allows it to avoid Federal Drug Administration regulations regarding purity and safety.
King, while warning he's not a doctor or pharmacist, said CBD is "a medicinal thing," and people want it because they think it helps. He said he has seen people wean themselves off opioids and treat pain. King uses the products to treat his anxiety and depression, he said.
CBD store sues to sell its products in Catoosa County
"I've had people come in and say, 'I'm tryin' my best to get off of this, or this, or this,' and I've helped so many people get off of hard substances with this product," King said. "Stuff that was killing them, and they're living their best life now."
"If that's wrong," King said, "if they say that's worthy of being put in jail, then cuff me right now because I'm still going to continue to help people."
In February, King received a letter from the Sheriff's Office warning that "prosecution and seizures" would move forward if his business continued to sell products the sheriff said tested for an illegal amount of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. The Shoppe sells vape supplies, pipes, tie-dyed T-shirts, Dr. Squatch soap and other things, King said.
"We have already had several incidents in our community where juveniles have had adverse reactions to vapes and other products containing tetrahydrocannabinol," Sheriff Gary Sisk said in the letter. "I am not saying you are the store that sold it to them, but this is some of the very reason we do not want this in our community. Besides, it is a violation of Georgia law."
Sisk said the products sold by the Shoppe contain more THC than is indicated on the label, and manufacturers are misrepresenting their product. The sheriff said those products may become legal in a few years but are not now.
"That is not the law now, and that is what I have sworn to uphold," Sisk said.
Hemp derivatives were legalized in 2018's federal farm bill. Hemp and cannabis, also known as marijuana, are the same species of plant, but hemp has less THC - the chemical that gets people high. In the farm bill, hemp is defined as a cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% THC. Cannabis plants can contain up to 30% THC.
Made law in 2019, Georgia's House Bill 213 legalized hemp and its derivatives. State and federal law set a 0.3% limit for THC in delta-9, a derivative of CBD, but King argues delta-8 and other pain-fighting derivatives have no threshold limits because they aren't specifically mentioned in the law.
In May, the Food and Drug Administration issued warnings about delta-8. One of more than 100 cannabinoids contained naturally in trace amounts in hemp, delta-8 is concentrated from hemp-derived CBD but is often improperly marketed as medicine, the release stated.
"It is important for consumers to be aware that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use in any context," the FDA said in its warning.
Also in May, letters were sent to companies the FDA claimed were illegally selling CBD and delta-8 products. The warnings were issued after an uptick in "adverse event" reports, the FDA said.
The Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force sent out a letter similar to Sisk's in March, causing stores in Dade, Walker, and Chattooga counties to strip their shelves of CBD derivatives.
King said the multijurisdictional drug task force has "backed off" until a court case is settled in Gwinnett County that's tackling the same issue regarding the sale of CBD derivatives. Representatives from the task force were asked for a comment about the case and their approach to CBD investigations, but they did not respond before deadline.
When asked for a comment about the case and whether his office's stance had changed after Friday's hearing, Sisk said by email, "This is an ongoing civil/criminal case that I cannot comment on at this time."
King said his store's delta-9 is within legal limits, and the store has certificates of analysis proving that. Also, King said his attorneys questioned some technical aspects of the equipment the Sheriff's Office uses to test products for THC content.
King said pressure from the Sheriff's Office is hurting his small business and hurting people who use the products to treat pain and anxiety.
The community sees how the products are helping people, King said, but he believes the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office does not. Several members of the community attended the court hearing to offer support, and King said a few told him they showed up because they wanted to see someone stand up to the sheriff.
There are five or six other stores and several gas stations in Catoosa County that sell CBD, and King said they've all pulled these type of products. Officials in Dade, Walker, and Chattooga counties aren't concerned about prosecuting for delta-8 and other minor cannabinoid products, he said, "but everybody's still standing behind us. We still have the full support of all the other shops."