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Cannabis markets flower power


After stopping for a coffee at Fuego's Rochester Public Market stand on a recent Saturday morning, I turned around and my eyes fell on a table filled with wares that my pre-caffeine eyes had missed before. There were jars of grass- and amber-hued cooking oils, bags of hemp flower tea and cannabis infused coffee, roll-on cannabidiol aromatherapy body oils, and plastic pop-top vials with single, pre-rolled hemp flower joints inside. The apothecary-like stand Cannabis functions as the storefront for Michael Iuliucci's company, Navitas, which offers an array of cannabis-derived products, with a specific focus on cannabidiol (CBD).

Iuliucci, who owns Navitas and runs the market storefront with Kelly Brown, is one of a number of entrepreneurs who are working to better understand the medicinal properties offered by a much maligned plant. He founded Navitas after years of struggling to treat his anxiety-induced seizures.

CBD is one of more than 100 known naturally-occurring cannabinoids found in cannabis, along with the plant's most famous, intoxicating chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Because CBD isn't an intoxicant — it won't get you high — CBD is legal to use, provided that whatever product it's in contains under .3 percent of THC. (Cannabis has been declared an illegal, Schedule 1 drug, so the plant is on shaky ground as far as federal regulation goes, but it's being sold in states where medical cannabis is legal).

"Over seven years ago I found out that CBD helped me personally, but I didn't really know how," Iuliucci says. "I have seizures triggered at the sight of blood. I can get a cut on my hand and just faint and have a seizure. But a year-and-a-half ago I delivered my son on the side of the expressway without any seizure symptoms because of the hemp plant."

Iuliucci says he figured out that he needed high levels of cannabinoids in his system, but not high levels of THC, and began sourcing CBD to treat himself. But he says he found there was poor availability and poor quality, and that "99 percent of the time you don't know what you're getting." He decided to leave his job as an industrial manufacturer sales rep to help develop the underexplored cannabinoid industry in New York State.

Discovered in 1940, CBD was not initially thought to have medicinal benefits, but in recent years scientists and doctors have been studying and prescribing it and other chemicals isolated from cannabis to treat various diseases and ailments. In 2018 the FDA approved the use of CBD as a prescription drug called Epidiolex to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy. And in 2005 Canada approved Sativex, which contains both CBD and THC, to treat pain associated with multiple sclerosis.

Though Iuliucci isn't a medical professional, and the farm-grade products he offers aren't FDA approved, he can informally advise customers about what kind of product they might try based on their description of an ailment. Customers come to him with a range of issues, from anxiety to inflammation, or the desire to lose weight or kick substance abuse. CBD has been noted by some doctors who work with medical cannabis to function as an appetite suppressant in some patients and Iuliucci says some people have replaced smoking cigarettes with cannabis cones.

Just like using any herbal supplement as a therapeutic substance, it's up to individual consumers to decide what works for them. But Iuliucci recommends directing concerns and specific questions to a doctor who works in the growing cannabinoid-as-medicine field.

The field of cannabinoid studies is still very experimental, because it's still such an under-examined plant. But CBD won't hurt you, Iuliucci says, adding that our bodies have a natural endocannabinoid production system. When you have a "runner's high" you produce your own cannabinoids, and breast milk has cannabinoids in it as well, he says. CBD is so safe that Iuluicci and Brown rub the topical product on their kids' feet at night.

And Iuliucci has been working with Dr. Harold Smith, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, to further understand the medicinal applications of cannabinoids. Smith is in the process of designing tests with human DNA to show efficacy of cannabinoids on certain ailments, Iuliucci says. This will also eventually help people figure out the levels of their individual intake of cannabinoids should be, he says.

For the time being Iuliucci imports hemp flower products from Whole Circle Farms in Silverton, Oregon, but he is in discussions to also source hemp flowers locally from a farm in Canandaigua. And he sources his infused products through licensed company Hemp Empire in Holley, located in neighboring Orleans County.

There's a number of ways that CBD can be consumed or taken into the body. You can smoke hemp flowers in dried form or as a vapor, use extract-infused cooking oils in meal prep, ingest it through steeping the dried flowers and leaves as a tea, and take it topically — a colleague of mine uses CBD ointment recommended by her physical therapist as partial treatment for a knee injury.