Alaska News

Is therapeutic hemp oil subject to Alaska marijuana laws?

"Kenai Pen Name," who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is experiencing early-stage symptoms, including painful muscle spasms, asks: "I would like to know more about how cannabidiol (CBD) oil fits into marijuana laws. Is it treated the same as regular marijuana? Is there awareness about the difference? Are there any plans to make it available for sale?"

I'm not sure about how much awareness is out there, but the differences between CBD and other cannabinoids could fill this space just by itself (and it could get really sciencey).

The main details for the purposes of this column are that CBD does not cause a "high" in people, and when it enters the body it does not act on the same chemical receptors that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive substance in cannabis plants, does. Because it's not psychoactive, CBD oil is also not thought to be habit-forming and users report no withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking it. In recent clinical trials, CBD has indicated effectiveness against seizures, inflammation, vomiting, bound-up muscles, anxiety, nerve disorders or damage and psychosis. It has also shown it can reduce the psychoactive effects of THC. With the recent loosening of federal rules on studying cannabis, medical understanding of both CBD and THC should only improve from here.

Government approval?

All of what's written here must be understood in the context that hemp CBD oils available over the counter are not approved for medical use in the US, and that there's no FDA guarantee of their purity or safety. They're also different from the standardized CBD and THC medicines being sold under various brand names by prescription in other countries and that have either been approved or are being tested for FDA approval.

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

Even though pharmaceuticals containing CBD oil are available by prescription in other countries, they're not available here yet, so there may still be reasons for American patients to choose an over-the counter hemp oil product. Those decisions are best left up to doctors and patients and may take some trial and error. There is always risk in self-diagnosing and self-medicating, and any change in treatment should be discussed with one's doctor.

For multiple sclerosis symptoms, favorable clinical trials have been conducted with a drug called Sativex, which is basically a 1:1 mix of plant-derived THC and CBD. It is available by prescription in Europe to ease MS symptoms and is progressing through trials in the U.S. for that use. But indications are that CBD is sufficient by itself to help treat symptoms like the muscle spasms that plague Kenai Pen Name. MS patients in the Sativex studies have reported an ease of symptoms, but also mental effects similar to being high, though, and that may not be acceptable to some. The same company's CBD-only pharmaceutical product has begun the U.S. approval process for treatment of a kind of childhood epilepsy.

But those processes can move slowly, and the need for some patients is more urgent. That has lead to a bit of a rush to satisfy demand. The FDA recently warned some non-pharmaceutical hemp oil companies for over-claiming benefits of their products. But that having been said, it's not entirely the wild west. There are independent testing labs, and companies with a long-term interest in hemp have an interest in providing a safe effective product, much like all the herbal supplement makers out there whose products also aren't regulated by the FDA. Bad hemp oil actors have been discovered out there, however, so buyer beware.

That's a very basic run-down on differences and uses, but what about availability?


Is hemp CBD oil prohibited in Alaska or what?

Industrial hemp CBD oil is currently available for sale at many smoke shops and hemp-friendly places around Alaska -- no prescription or medical marijuana card necessary. I spoke to several vendors in the course of researching this column and they all said that no law enforcement agencies or regulators have given them any indication that what they're doing is against the law or prohibited. It is apparent that hemp CBD oil is being allowed by federal authorities and is not being treated as part of Alaska's legal cannabis landscape.

CBD oil is not treated the same as regular marijuana in the realm of law for a couple of reasons, chief among them a new federal distinction between cannabis and industrial hemp. President Obama recently signed a Farm Bill amended to remove industrial hemp from the strictures of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which banned it. That move expires in 5 years, but a bill is before Congress that would make it permanent.

Because CBD oil is derived from industrial hemp, not marijuana, buying, selling and transporting across state lines are all allowed. Think of it as the same situation that allows stores to openly sell hemp products, like nutritional supplements or hemp seed granola. All this isn't to say that industrial hemp CBD oil will remain as accessible as it is now. It may be regulated in the future to some extent.

Domestic hemp production is only recently allowed, though. Hemp used to be illegal to grow in the U.S., and all raw hemp products, whether fiber, plant matter or seeds, were being imported by manufacturers of everything from string to hand lotion, but now an avenue has opened and some states are taking advantage. The landscape is full of speculation and new energy across the country, particularly Kentucky, historically a major hemp producer.

Hemp is indeed a variety of cannabis sativa, but it contains practically none of the species' main psychoactive substance, THC. Non-pharmaceutical grade oils derived from it typically wind up containing a trivial amount, far far less than would cause any noticeable psychoactive effects in otherwise healthy people. Removing hemp from the controlled substances act makes sense to me, regardless of any medical or industrial uses, because it was never a recreational substance, except maybe for masochists.

Several people who use hemp CBD oils regularly, even a few times a day, for chronic conditions have told me that they feel absolutely no "high." The main thing they all described was a great sense of relief, a relaxation or loosening of their muscles and joints, and a blunting of chronic pain or nerve sensations. I'm no doctor, and clinical trials on CBD are still being conducted, but the testimonials I heard were compelling.

Is it available in Alaska?

Hemp CBD oils are already available around the state, and calling around at smoke shops or hemp-friendly places would be a good bet. Rather than run down a list of names here, I'll just say that a Google search will result in many leads in Alaska, many of which checked out when I called. One online list incorrectly identifies Spenard glass shop Good Glass as a seller. And a call confirmed that Southside Garden Supply in Anchorage still stocks hemp CBD oil after first being identified as a vendor in an August 2014 news story. Many of the smoke shops and head shops I called, however, have it stocked.

I was able to find a wholesale distributor, though, who stocks shelves with hemp CBD oil at small shops across the state. Mike Shadley's company, First Frontier Distribution, based in Homer, sells two types of oils marketed under the brand name "CBD Drip," mainly to smoke shops like Smokin' Deals, which has stores in a few cities, but to stores elsewhere, and to individuals. He was the only distributor I was able to find in my research, but I expect others are out there. If any others step forward, I'll update this space. Shadley said anyone who wonders how to find a store nearby can email him at

The manufacturer Shadley buys from provided test results from a third-party lab that convinced him of the product's safety and purity, and he said that potency and concentration were key criteria in his evaluation. "We made sure it's medically active," he said. He said he uses his own product nightly to relieve his restless leg syndrome, and that it allows him to get a good night's rest because he can't lie down without it. Having found relief in his own life, he considers distribution business something of a benevolent act. "I'm only doing it to help people. I think it's huge that it's available," he said.

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.