Charlotte's Web: Untangling One of Colorado's Biggest Cannabis Success Stories

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Standing on his back porch in unlaced, muddy work boots, Jason Cranford takes a drag from his cigarette and gazes out at the six acres of farmland he owns in Longmont -- six acres that, if all goes as planned, will be filled next summer with thousands of high-CBD, low-THC cannabis plants that will qualify as hemp. Between tending to the marijuana crop in his South Park greenhouse, working with lawmakers in Georgia on a proposed medical marijuana bill and meeting with government officials in Jamaica about starting a grow there, Cranford's been busy. Today he's already worked around the farm, met with investors in his marijuana businesses -- Cranford owns Rifle Mountain Dispensary and co-founded Cranfords Cigarettes, a machine-rolled-cannabis-cigarette company -- and answered dozens of e-mails and Facebook messages from parents with various medical dosing questions.

Along with his for-profit businesses, Cranford runs the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation, a nonprofit organization that, with 120 patients and counting, is the second-largest operation providing high-CBD oils to children in Colorado. In the wake of the CNN documentary on Charlotte's Web, Cranford posted the test results on CannLabs' website of one of the high-CBD marijuana strains he'd been cultivating for years in his South Park greenhouse; it didn't take long for parents, many of whom were on Realm of Caring's waiting list, to start reaching out. Scruffy and laconic, Cranford comes across as the opposite of the straitlaced, charismatic Stanley brothers. But he had the same reaction they did when he saw what his plants could do for some children. "I was skeptical at first," he says. "But when they started trying it, we were just amazed at how well it worked." He named one of his high-CBD strains Haleigh's Hope, after a four-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy who went from hundreds of seizures a day to just a handful while taking his oil.

To serve his patients, Cranford operates as a basic caregiver, having a few employees help him make the oils in a plastic-draped extraction lab he's set up in his garage; patients stop by the house to pick up new batches. He decided it was too complicated, too expensive for patients, to sell his high-CBD oils out of his dispensary, as the Stanley Brothers do; he didn't like the idea of families having to drive through the mountains to Rifle to get their product.

For a while, Cranford would ask parents to donate whatever they could afford in exchange for oil; lately, however, he's established a pricing scale similar to that of Realm of Caring, with oils starting at five cents a milligram. But there are other differences between the operations: Cranford, who uses light-deprivation systems in his greenhouses to produce four crop cycles a year, doesn't have a list; the longest anyone has had to wait for their first batch of oil has been six weeks. In addition, says Cranford, "I give out clones to parents."

Cranford says that CannLabs, which also tests his oils, introduced him to Paige Figi and Joel Stanley via e-mail last January, and Cranford offered to supply oils to patients on Realm of Caring's wait list. He says they never responded. No one at Realm of Caring or Stanley Brothers remembers such an offer; while they do list other common high-CBD strains in their new-patients' starter guide, Realm of Caring doesn't recommend anyone else's services to those waiting for Charlotte's Web. "I am looking, looking, looking, but I have not seen another organization step up with something I would give to my daughter," says Paige Figi. "I think these operations need to have a commercial license. The product has to be lab-tested, consistent, and there has to be medical support."

In a lengthy April interview in Ladybud magazine, an online women's publication largely focused on marijuana issues, Cranford criticized Realm of Caring for its wait list, suggesting that, based on his math, "they're making $10,800 off of each patient before they ever even give them any medicine."

Although Realm of Caring and the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation are the largest suppliers of high-CBD oils to children, other Colorado marijuana growers and caregivers are cultivating CBD-rich plants; some of these individuals are even quietly providing high-CBD oils to families in other states. And now bigger names are trying to get in on the action with their own alternatives to Charlotte's Web and Haleigh's Hope.

Greenwerkz, a Denver-based dispensary chain, is working on a large-scale indoor cultivation of R4, a high-CBD strain that master grower Kelly Roller says he's been developing since 2009 -- and that he believes is the origin of Charlotte's Web. Back in 2011, he remembers, the Stanley brothers asked him for help with one of their patients, and he provided them with trim from R4 plants, which he had been calling "Hippies' Disappointment." "We believe they took a seed and popped it, and that became Charlotte's Web," says Roller, adding that he just wants to set the record straight.

The record doesn't need correcting, counters Joel Stanley. "Charlotte's Web is not R4," he says. "We had been breeding CBD for a year and a half before we'd ever heard of R4." Plus, he adds, "having seen R4 grown and tested, it doesn't have the same CBD/THC profile."

Charlotte's Web is also facing competition from outside Colorado, including from companies like Medical Marijuana Inc. that sell high-CBD oils made from industrial hemp produced outside the country. These companies argue that their oils are exempt from cannabis restrictions because they're sold as food or nutritional supplements -- which also means the companies can't make claims regarding their medical use. "They fooled the whole country into thinking that this is medical marijuana and they need to move to Colorado to get access to this," says Medical Marijuana Inc. spokesman Andrew Hard of the people behind Charlotte's Web. Even so, Hard says that so far this year, his company has sold more than $30 million worth of high-CBD products like Real Scientific Hemp Oil Gold, its top-of-the-line product, which retails for $499 for a ten-gram tube.

But in October, Project CBD, a nonprofit educational organization, published an investigative report accusing Medical Marijuana Inc. and its subsidiaries of shady business dealings and questionable safety standards that had made some users of its products violently ill. "If there is anything that comes out of this report, I hope it's that sensible regulations for therapeutic cannabis will be implemented in accordance with rigorous standards that apply to other medicinal herbs," says Project CBD director Martin Lee. Something else has already come out of the report: Medical Marijuana Inc. is suing several individuals and organizations that contributed to the investigation for $100 million in damages. The defendants include Cranford, who was briefly tapped by Medical Marijuana Inc. as a scientific advisor before he resigned and began raising questions about its operation, and CannLabs, which ran tests on samples of Medical Marijuana Inc. products provided by Cranford.

There's another competitor hoping to satisfy that market demand: GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company, is conducting an FDA-approved trial of Epidiolex, a high-CBD drug made from marijuana. "We are leading the path forward toward developing a prescription, pure plant-derived cannabidiol medicine, which is what we believe physicians and patients desire," says company spokesman Stephen Schultz. If GW is successful, there could soon be a pharmaceutical equivalent of Charlotte's Web.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Stanley Brothers no longer includes all of the Stanley brothers. Late last year, Josh Stanley, the oldest and most visible of the six brothers, the one featured in the CNN documentary and a popular TEDx talk about Charlotte's Web, left to start Strains of Hope, a nonprofit medical cannabis organization, and GenCanna Global Enterprises, a for-profit company marketing "cannabinoid replacement therapy" through nutraceuticals made from hemp grown in California, Kentucky and elsewhere. "I am my brothers' biggest cheerleader; I just had a different vision," says Josh. "Colorado's regulations are just too restrictive. It's fantastic to prove the efficacy; it's quite another to satisfy market demand that gets it to people who really need it."

Competing companies and nonprofits, claims and counterclaims: It's becoming increasingly complicated for parents to figure out the best way to get high-CBD oil for their children. On October 25, Summer Forrest Larsen, the Denver mother who took her son Kingsley off Charlotte's Web because of consistency concerns, posted a message on New Home New Hope, the private Facebook page set up by parents for those moving to Colorado for Charlotte's Web: "There are other CBD oils available for those who aren't finding what they used to have with CW. I know it is frustrating, but please don't be afraid to branch out and try other CBD oils provided by multiple growers in this state." An hour later, she says, she was banned from the Facebook group.

"This group thrives on love and support, and we will do what it takes to maintain an environment conducive to such," says Holli Brown, one of the administrators for New Home New Hope. "Sometimes that means removing the source of the problems from our groups rather than making hundreds of others deal with the negativity."

But Summer says she wasn't being negative, she was just trying to support other parents. "It's all about helping children, right?" she asks.

Continue to keep reading about Charlotte's Web, one of Colorado's biggest cannabis success stories.
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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner