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A costly inconvenience or a necessary safety measure? Opinions are divided on New York's upcoming CBD embargo.


NEW YORK (CIRCA) — As soon as Eric Cahan, the co-owner of Mamacha, wrapped up his interview, he began packing up some of the CBD products on display at his coffee shop. There was undoubtedly an air of uncertainty surrounding which were OK to continue displaying and selling and which could be taken at any moment by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. If there was any question whatsoever, the product went straight into a cardboard box, headed for an uncertain fate.

Eric Cahan has changed the language at New York City coffee shop Mamacha from "CBD" to "hemp" out of caution for the upcoming embargo.

Cahan’s confusion that day was a product of the CBD embargo in New York City that started making headlines in early February. When the news broke that the health department had ordered at least five restaurants to cease selling any CBD-infused products, business owners were left wondering exactly what that meant for their futures and the future of CBD. Despite an FDA ruling from December regarding cannabis-derived food and drink sales, the events still came as a sudden shock to many restaurateurs in the city.

“As I see it, there was a blog written by Eater that somebody from the health department ‘embargoed’ some cookies and muffins or something to that effect, and then they were asked why, and then they had to come up with a policy,” said Cahan. “But their policy doesn’t really make any sense.”

Following the initial turbulence, the health department clarified via email that an official embargo would begin July 1. Before that date, the department's focus would be on educating food service establishments on the specifics of the prohibitions.

“Beginning July 1, 2019, if operators have not voluntarily come into compliance, the Health Department will embargo food and drink products that contain CBD. The products will have to be returned to the supplier or discarded,” the email read.

It continued: “Starting October 1, 2019, the Health Department will begin issuing violations to food service establishments for offering food or drink containing CBD. Violations may be subject to fines, as well as violation points that count toward the establishment’s letter grade.” The email then linked to the FDA and Marijuana FAQ page.

While the recent clarification sheds some degree of light on the issue for restaurant and coffee shop owners, questions still loom. Across different food service establishments, there’s a basic level of understanding that they’ll no longer be able to physically add the CBD on-site into food and beverage products for their customers. But what about prepackaged CBD treats, such as gummies, chocolates and lollipops?

Pre-packaged CBD options sit on counters at Caffeine Underground and Adriaen Block.

“Where do you draw the line between a food and a supplement?” asked Ian Ford, owner of Caffeine Underground, a cafe that sells multiple types of prepackaged CBD products. “We don’t know. Is that considered food? Is that considered something added? Where can you add the CBD, who can add the CBD, and where can you sell it?”

The CBD trend in New York City caught on in 2018 as an exciting prospect for business owners looking to enhance their menu offerings, particularly in ways that aligned with rising consumer demands for wellness-focused options.

CBD stands for cannabidiol, one of the compounds found in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, the compound that causes the high associated with using cannabis, CBD is nonintoxicating. While users won’t get high from CBD, scientific studies have demonstrated the potential for therapeutic benefits. People have reported benefits ranging from reduced anxiety to relief from chronic pain.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not prescribing anything, but they’re getting a lot of use from it,” Cahan said of his customers. “We have people coming in with arthritis, anxiety, and they come back multiple times. It must be doing something helpful for them."

CBD helped not only customers with their ailments but also the businesses with getting their names out there to the surrounding communities. For Caffeine Underground, a local news article about the addition of CBD to its menu let Bushwick residents know that there was a coffee shop in the neighborhood, whether or not they were actually interested in CBD itself. But many, in fact, were interested, especially when it came to the beneficial relationship between CBD and coffee.

CBD-infused coffee at Caffeine Underground.

Though the two may seem like an unlikely couple, they actually work well together, according to Ford. “Some people drink coffee to stay awake, but there’s a side effect of anxiety. CBD will mute that. CBD is a relaxant, so it can make you a little bit tired, and coffee offsets that,” he explained. “And so, it’s a really nice balance. So many people come here because it’s exactly what they need to get through their day in a really happy way.”

CBD coffee was also an essential component of the menu at Mamacha. The coffee shop began adding CBD to their beverages on 420 last year, as a way to celebrate the cannabis plant legally in New York City. Given the recent events, it has now updated its entire menu with the word “hemp.”

A display case at the cafe offers tinctures, vapes and other CBD products, all perfectly legal to purchase in the city. Customers will have to buy the CBD separately and put it into drinks themselves. Trial sizes are available for those seeking just a couple servings, rather than the more serious investment of a full-sized bottle. However, the trial size is not a single serving; instead, it provides two days’ worth of product for $12, rather than Mamacha’s initial model of $4 per dose added to a beverage.

A display case at Mamacha.

At Adriaen Block in Astoria, the inspiration to add CBD also stemmed from a desire to add a level of personal wellness to the bar’s mixology program. The bar and restaurant not only heavily promoted its CBD cocktails but also received significant media attention that drew CBD-seeking customers into the space.

“Ninety-nine percent of my people, they were coming for CBD cocktails,” said Zsolt “George” Csonka, the owner of Adriaen Block.

Now, those customers are calling the restaurant on a daily basis to check if they’re still able to enjoy the cocktails that made them fall in love with the bar.

“They try to find out if we’re still open, if we got shut down by the DOH, if they confiscated all of our CBD products,” said Csonka.

The answers to those questions are yes, Adriaen Block is still open, and no, they weren’t shut down, and no, nothing was confiscated. Customers can still enjoy CBD cocktails at the Queens restaurant with one slight difference. Instead of the bar physically putting CBD into the drinks, guests will have to put it into their cocktails themselves. Single-sized CBD tinctures or infused gummy bears will be served alongside the beverages.

Customers at Adriaen Block will now need to add CBD to the bar's cocktails if they want consume it.

When it comes to craft cocktails, the entire experience is meant to be a show that the mixologist puts on for the customers. Csonka used to see the addition of CBD to the drinks as part of the ritual, but even with these new regulations, the show must go on.

“I think it’s still doable, still reasonable, still beautiful, nothing lost,” Csonka said of his new process.

But unfortunately, the customers don’t always agree with Csonka’s optimism. Though the workarounds do allow customers to enjoy CBD in largely the same way as they could before any embargoes, a decline in sales may reflect their frustrations with the new processes. Sales have dropped at both Mamacha and Adriaen Block, about 20 percent and 40 percent, respectively. And at Adriaen Block, Csonka has also seen negative reviews and a significant loss of followers on Instagram and Facebook.

Cahan sympathizes with frustrated customers.

“It makes no sense that they can buy it on their own, but we can’t add it for you. I don’t understand the thinking behind it,” he said.

Yet at a Brooklyn CBD dispensary called Hidden Hemp, the owner sees the increased regulations as a positive for the future of CBD.

Joann Bauer, who runs Hidden Hemp in Brooklyn, says the new regulations are actually a good thing for the CBD industry.

“In my opinion, this recent ban, or withdrawal, from infused products through restaurants and coffee bars, I think is an amazing step for the industry in the right direction,” said Joann Bauer, who has been running Hidden Hemp in Park Slope since July 2018.

In her reasoning for her support of the embargo, Bauer detailed an experience she had with one of the restaurants that hopped on the CBD-infused products trend.

“I’ve been in restaurants, like By Chloe, for instance, and I saw, like, a little pot leaf on a brownie,” Bauer said.

But when she asked an employee what that meant, the only response was that it was a “CBD treat.” Bauer pressed on, asking what CBD does and why she should take it, hoping for an informed conversation about the substance that had been added to the brownie. The employee told her that it would “make her feel calm.”

“And that was it,” Bauer said.

Bath and beauty topical CBD products at Hidden Hemp.

Bauer is immensely careful about the specific products and brands that she offers in her dispensary. She conducts a 20 to 30-minute consultation with all first-time visitors to the shop, an experience that they’re unlikely to receive at a crowded coffee shop or a busy bar. Each consultation begins with a thorough explanation of what CBD actually is, whether the customer is previously aware of its existence or not. From there, Bauer dives deeper into that specific person’s needs.

“We’re obviously not here to make medical claims,” Bauer clarified.

Instead, she speaks from her own experience with CBD to help the customer find a potentially helpful product for whatever ailments they have described to her. During a consultation, Bauer also makes sure to gather information about which prescription drugs a customer may be taking, as there are interactions that CBD has with certain medications.

“I don’t even know the last time that I went to a restaurant and somebody asked me if I was taking blood pressure medication or was on blood thinners,” she said.

“I do want people to be more aware of CBD, and I do want people to have the ability to experience it,” said Hidden Hemp employee Madison Mayol of food service establishments offering the substance, “but I do agree that it’s not 100 percent safe to be having it in restaurants, because there’s no real regulation.”

“[Restaurant owners] don’t do a lot of research. They’re just hopping on the bandwagon,” she said.

While the absence of consistency poses an issue, not all business owners and restaurant employees are quite so oblivious about CBD.

Ford, for example, has a history with the product that allows him to speak about it in a knowledgeable way, beyond just telling customers that it will “make them calm.” He describes himself as an addicted person; alcohol has been a problem for him, and he no longer drinks. Given this personal history, Ford has developed an interest in understanding what chemicals do what and what they do to people.

“I stay away from pretty much everything,” he said.

However, he’s found CBD to be pretty much innocuous, after using it for a period of time to treat back pain instead of turning to Vicodin. He was able to successfully deal with that level of pain solely through the use of CBD. When Ford’s back pain subsided, he put down the CBD without any lingering cravings or feelings of needing more.

The owner of Caffeine Underground, Ian Ford, said he took CBD to treat back pain and didn't feel any lingering side effects once he stopped taking it.

But as Ford praises the safety of CBD, he ensures that all signage at Caffeine Underground is remarkably clear with regards to dosage, brand and type of product. Ford recommends that people new to CBD start with a 5-milligram dose and gradually increase it to a 10-milligram dose as their tolerance changes over continued use, as it still has the potential to affect people differently.

“You can’t just randomly add this chemical, put it in food and decide how much behind the counter,” Ford said.

Regardless of any differences in opinions of or approaches to the embargo, most restaurateurs agreed that it was only the timeline of the increased regulations that truly came as a shock. The regulations themselves seemed inevitable.

“I already knew that the health department would come up eventually with rules and regulations. I was just not sure when and how,” said Csonka.

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