People used to wander into the CBD Kratom store in Bucktown thinking it was a pot shop.
It’s not, of course. Recreational weed is still illegal in Illinois. The store sells CBD products — caramels, oils, bath bombs, dog treats — that customers use to alleviate conditionslike anxiety or chronic pain. CBD, short for cannabidiol, is a cannabis compound that does not get users high. It isn’t quite mainstream yet, but it’s getting there.
“More people are coming in here with a basic knowledge of CBD,” senior store clerk Fred Keen said.
The U.S. market for CBD products — most often derived from hemp, another plant in the cannabis family — grew by more than 80 percent in 2018, to about $591 million, according to Chicago-based Brightfield Group, which does market research in cannabis-related industries. The products gained momentum with anxiety-ridden millennials in search of a solution more natural than the Xanax of previous generations. But now the products are becoming popular with older age groups as users look to address the illnesses, aches and pains associated with aging without pharmaceuticals.
As a result, CBD products are appearing on shelves at natural food stores, boutiques and clothing shops throughout the Chicago area. New CBD shops are opening in the suburbs, and CBD stores in the city are expanding or working to accommodate more customers.
Of course, not everyone is sold. With scant research on effectiveness or side effects, some doctors remain skeptical, and there are users who say they don’t feel a thing when using CBD products. The products also aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Regardless, business is booming at CBD Kratom, said Kris Jackson, general manager of the company’s local stores. The St. Louis-based company, which has three stores in Chicago and is eyeing the suburbs, has hired 10 new salespeople in the city since October.
About an hour after the Damen Avenue store opened on a recent Friday morning, a steady stream of customers trickled in. The clerks worked their way around the store with each one, showing them the new products, like bergamot orange-flavored saltwater taffy, or the best-sellers, like tinctures that are dropped under the tongue.
There were CBD-infused rubs, pain creams and lip salves. There were caramels, chocolates and lollipops. There were candles with CBD-infused wax that, once melted, could be used for massaging and CBD-infused tea bags, honey and olive oil.
Melody Kratz, 48, was new to the store that morning, but not to CBD.
The Oak Park resident said she started taking it to treat anxiety, but after a few weeks noticed it was helping with her frequent migraines more than prescription medicine. She started selling CBD products at the vintage boutique she owns.
“I’m a big believer in it,” she said, smelling different jars of CBD bud, a dried hemp flower that users can smoke. “I’m ready to dive all in.”
The CBD industry’s growth has largely been a grassroots movement, with people most likely to learn about the compound through friends or family, according to Brightfield Group’s data.
“It sort of grew out of nowhere,” said Bethany Gomez, director of research at Brightfield Group.
President Donald Trump signed a bill Thursday legalizing industrial hemp farming, which could propel the industry to reach $22 billion by 2022, Brightfield estimates. Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill earlier this year allowing industrial hemp cultivation in Illinois, though the state’s farmers are not yet growing the crop.
Large-scale consumer packaged goods or pharmaceutical companies could start rolling out CBD products to national retail chains, altering the industry currently dominated by smaller, independent brands, Gomez said. It would be astounding growth from an industry that just 18 months ago saw most of its sales online and at vape and smoke shops.
Botanic Alternatives put its first CBD products on the shelf of its Logan Square shop in mid-2017, back when it was called Cloud Vapor Lounge. Now 85 percent of the business is CBD products, owner and founder Tom Fisher said.
He’s planning to remodel the Milwaukee Avenue space, shrinking the vape lounge and product area and adding stations with information on CBD products where customers can learn. Fisher also plans to take down one of the handmade, cotton-wrapped vape cloud models that hang in the front window and keep the store open an extra day each week.
“We probably could have done (that) a time ago,” Fisher said, standing in front of a display case teeming with CBD joints, creams and more.
The store has partnered with shops throughout the city that want to stock CBD products, and it worked with a company to host a ticketed dinner Tuesday where attendees dined on CBD-infused s’mores bars, deviled eggs and crudites.
Despite the trendiness, not everyone has succumbed to CBD mania. Daniel Paul, 56, tried putting CBD drops under his tongue before bed to help him stay asleep. But come 4:30 a.m., he was wide awake, just like every night before he started using the tincture.
“It didn’t help me stay asleep,” the Lakeview resident said. “I can’t say it’s not effective — just for my type of sleep issues, it’s just not great.”
Employees at Chicago CBD shops are quick to tell customers that everyone is different, and some items may be more effective for one person than they are for another. They’re also careful not to prescribe. In the retail world, CBD products are treated similarly to dietary supplements, so the medical claims are kept in check.
Still, pamphlets in Chicago CBD shops and on their websites give information on the cannabinoid receptors humans have throughout their bodies.
The receptors are part of the body’s endocannabinoid system and are found throughout the digestive tract, central nervous, cardiovascular, immune and other systems, according to an article from Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic.
When marijuana, CBD or another cannabinoid is ingested, it interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system. For example, weed smokers likely get the munchies because THC — the psychoactive compound that gets users high — is interacting with cannabinoid receptors that govern food intake, according to Bostwick’s research.
But user beware: Cannabinoid receptors are so widely distributed throughout the body that activating one for a certain purpose, say to treat arthritis pain, may activate others and cause unwanted effects. That has caused challenges for pharmaceutical development, according to the research.
More valid scientific experiments must be conducted to determine whether and how CBD — and marijuana, for that matter — is effective, said Dr. Stephen Hanauer, medical director of the Digestive Health Center at Northwestern Medicine.
“Aspirin can be very helpful for a headache or a joint ache, but if you’ve got a bleeding ulcer, it’s got harmful effects,” Hanauer said. “We need to know both the good and the bad.”
Until then, consumers should be aware that most of the benefits they’re hearing about surrounding CBD products have not been proved by valid clinical studies, he said.
That didn’t stop Stella Chalik, who quit her job at a medical records company a year and a half ago to start a wholesale bakery called Mishka Oil.
Getting her CBD-infused baked goods onto store shelves was hard at first, Chalik said. Most business owners she called didn’t know what CBD was or thought it was illegal. But that has changed. Now her products are sold in stores in more than a dozen states, including at wellness centers, yoga studios and grocery chain Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market.
“There are still a lot of challenges,” Chalik said. “(But now) people are reaching out to me.”