Inside This Florida Politician’s Mission to Make CBD Legit

Florida Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried, a former cannabis lobbyist, is pushing her state to lead the way on regulating CBD.
Nikki Fried, Florida's newly-elected Democrat commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, speaks at a reception during the Florida Democratic Party state conference, Friday, June 7, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Beware of the many CBD products being peddled as medicinal cure-alls by your local bartender, barista, friends, and family. While many claim natural healing benefits, they may actually be packed with chemicals, toxins, metals, and other things you’d never expect to see sold over the counter in the U.S. — even large amounts of THC, which can cause you to, say, fail a drug test

That dire warning comes from Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist who is now Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In a state where agriculture is king, that makes her one of the most powerful women in government. And she’s serious when she pleads with people to drop the CBD — for now, anyway — as she and other state officials attempt to do what the Trump administration won’t.


“I’m begging people to not buy what’s on the shelves right now, because we just don’t know,” Fried told VICE News recently. “It could have THC in it. It could have no CBD. It could have chemicals. It could have metals. We just don’t know until we have these regulations in place.”

Contacted by VICE News, FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum pointed to a recent Twitter thread in which a top FDA official warns CBD companies against overstating health benefits, and pledges that the agency is “working quickly” to develop new regulations.

Not quickly enough, Fried says.

“It’s a tremendous failure, because people are putting things in their bodies that you have no idea what it is,” Fried said. “So it's a huge concern, especially for people that actually are sick and have, you know, deficient immune systems, and they’re thinking they're putting something healthy into their body and they have no idea what it is, which is why we had to act, because we were not going to wait for the federal government.”

The FDA could have seen this coming. Back in 1996, California voters opened the initial floodgates when voters OK'd medicinal marijuana, and in its wake legislators nationwide took a look at medicinal benefits of cannabis and hemp. Seventeen states have since legalized CBD for human consumption, including Oregon.

That put it on the radar of the state’s senior senator, Democrat Ron Wyden, who first started pushing for regulations in 2012. He eventually found an unlikely ally: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who joined the effort because of the economic promise of hemp cultivation in some of the more blighted communities across his own home state. With his approval, last year Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, the nation’s sweeping farm bill, including provisions that legalized hemp and its derivatives, like CBD.


Consumers have latched onto this newly legalized substance, and they’re ingesting it in all forms, making it a booming, multibillion-dollar industry. But only one CBD pill has been signed off on by the FDA.

The USDA has released guidelines for hemp growers, which include requiring tracking the soil hemp is grown in, testing for THC, farm inspections and communicating with law enforcement. But the USDA is in charge of what’s grown, while the FDA controls what Americans put in their bodies. Well, at least they’re supposed to.

“There's been no testing whatsoever,” Fried said. “Do you just tell a pregnant woman, ‘Don’t’? We just don’t know.”

Fried fears the federal foot-dragging is because the FDA still sees cannabis and even CBD as “voodoo medicine.” But she’s not waiting around for them to catch up with the public. She’s working to make Florida’s rules and regulations the “gold standard” for CBD, much like they've been for oranges.

“We have the most experts in all fields agriculture,” Fried said, citing the state’s myriad scientists, economists, financial gurus, sellers, buyers, traders and, most importantly, resilient farmers who have weathered hurricanes, superstorms, twisters, droughts, floods and more. “Our rules are going to be what they’re going to compare every other state against.”

Fried rolled out her proposed rules at the end of October and has since been holding public forums. The rules require that seeds used to grow hemp be certified by her department, and they call for the establishment of an Industrial Hemp Advisory Council. They also attempt to spur more research by making it easier for the state’s universities and colleges to get involved in testing. After they’re finalized at home, Fried will have to get the USDA to sign off on them, as Congress requires. She hopes that will happen by the end of this year.


“This is a miracle plant, and I want to get seed in the ground as fast as possible."

Then, Fried says, she’s planning an aggressive effort to get the approved products properly labeled—and the untested ones off the shelves. Her office is preparing to send out warning letters to all companies currently selling CBD products. If that doesn’t work, they’ll hammer them with a round of cease and desist letters to sellers not in compliance. If the letter-writing campaign fails, Fried’s also got a force of consumer-service investigators ready to fan out and enforce the state’s new quality standards.

Fried said she’s expecting more than 3,000 applications for cultivating and processing CBD and hemp products.

“It’s going to be a tremendous undertaking to regulate, so we’ve already kind of pre-warned the legislature that we’re going to need some additional funding and some additional employees to help with this,” Fried said.

A former cannabis lobbyist, Fried knows these large, green plants well, which is why she’s worried about the quality of the products that have now become integral parts of many American’s diets or health regimes. She says another part of the federal delay is the complexity of hemp plants, which contain more than 100 different components. Fried says most FDA-approved products are tested so that one molecule is used to treat one condition.

“That’s just not the cannabis plant. So the formulation and how the FDA does their rules—this is blowing them out of the water,” Fried said. “They have no idea where to even start.”

Some states, including Oregon and Colorado, got a head start testing and setting up some regulations for CBD, because they already had regulatory regimes in place for recreational cannabis. But other states, like Florida and dozens of others, have been left scrambling since the federal government legalized CBD. They’re only now catching up, in part because consumer demand is so high, and because the impact is so promising.

“This is a miracle plant, and I want to get seed in the ground as fast as possible,” Fried said. “Let farmers be farmers, scientists be scientists, and let our entrepreneurs do what they do best and really build an industry here in the state of Florida.”

Nikki Fried, Florida's newly-elected Democrat commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, speaks at a reception during the Florida Democratic Party state conference, Friday, June 7, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)