In February, a car accident crushed Amanda Furstonberg’s left foot, leaving her with shooting pains and lingering fear. So on a friend’s advice, she tried smoking hemp flower — a legal form of cannabis with no psychedelic kick.
When she smoked it from a pipe in her Four Oaks apartment, she felt relaxed all over but not high — a feeling so satisfying she cut back on prescription pain pills. Then in April, the police showed up.
Officers from the small Johnston County town charged the 32-year-old mother with a pair of misdemeanors: possession of both marijuana and drug paraphernalia. She has a court date in June.
While they searched her apartment, Furstonberg said, she tried to explain that she had been smoking hemp, legally distinct from marijuana, purchased over the counter from stores in Garner and Raleigh, containing only CBD, a nonintoxicating cannibinoid.
She said she showed them the notice to law enforcement that came with the glass jars of hemp. She tried to inform the officers that under the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD is legal if it comes from hemp rather than marijuana and contains less than 0.03 percent THC — the compound giving illegal weed its psychological effects.
“They did not care,” said Furstonberg, who lives with her 9-year-old daughter. “They did not believe me.”
The spread of stores selling CBD and hemp — Raleigh lists at least 10 — has created legal confusion for police and prosecutors who either don’t know about legal cannabis or can’t tell the difference. CBD comes in gummy form, as a cream or in oil drops, but the hemp flowers look like dried oregano and generate a familiar college dorm smell when burned.
“It looks like marijuana, it smells like marijuana, but it’s not marijuana,” Raleigh attorney John Fanney said.
In April, sheriff’s deputies arrested a 69-year-old grandmother at the Disney World gates because she had a bottle of CBD oil in her purse along with a doctor’s recommendation, according to the Associated Press. She spent 12 hours in jail, and the charges were eventually dropped.
Fox 46 in Charlotte reported a Gaston County man called it “crazy as heck” when his high-school-age daughter was arrested for having CBD products in her backpack. She was handcuffed and taken to jail before charges were dropped, the TV station said.
Fanney has handled two such cases in Raleigh this year, one of which resulted in a probation violation for his client. To defend him, he had the man buy $100 worth of CBD products from Hemp Farmacy on Hillsborough Street, which Fanney then showed to a Wake County assistant district attorney, saying, “Here’s what we’re dealing with.”
The charges got dismissed.
“Officers aren’t historically trained to tell the difference,” he said. “Their only training consists of marijuana looks a certain way and smells a certain way. ... It’s going to be a great legal problem.”
The police chief in Four Oaks, pop. 2,082, could not be reached. Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle did not immediately return a call. But in Wake County, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said CBD and hemp products “make the enforcement of marijuana laws challenging.”
The Farm Bill states that any cannibinoid derived from hemp is legal if produced by a licensed grower and according to federal and state regulations, the Brookings Institute explains. Anything else, the DEA considers a Schedule I drug.
But hemp cannot always be easily distinguished from marijuana, Freeman said, and the Raleigh-Wake County lab equipped to test it has a “virtually nonexistent” ability to measure THC down to tenths of a percent.
Freeman described the CBD legal landscape as a “new sweepstakes,” comparing it to the state’s gambling parlors now operating in a legal gray area. It is helpful, she said, when CBD users have the packaging with them, especially if it comes with any doctor’s note.
“We are not at a point we have told law enforcement to stop investigating or even charging,” she said. When cases get to court and it’s clear the evidence shows no crimes committed, then the charges go away.
At Forever Hemp in south Raleigh, owner Sara Buchanan said she knows of no customers with charges. Customers sometimes ask for advice if they are stopped by police, and she advises them, “Don’t take it in the car.”
Meanwhile, Furstonberg can’t afford a lawyer’s help. She and her daughter live in income-based housing, where she receives disability benefits. Before her accident, she said, she worked as a nurse. But she worries that the charge will keep her from getting hired again.
She continues to smoke the hemp flower, calling it “an instant relief,” and she worries her recovery will stall if she can’t treat it naturally. At the Garner tobacco and vape shop where she bought her hemp, she is the only customer in trouble.
“I told them about that,” Furstonberg said, smiling, “and they gave me free gummies.”