Columbia startup Hempsley looks to cultivate wellness, cannabis understanding

Kristen Williams, CEO and creative director of Hempsley, achieved what she considers a big accomplishment — she convinced her grandparents in Alabama to try CBD oil. They’re even recommending her business to their friends.

Williams’ ever-evolving company sells CBD and aims to educate the public about cannabinoids like CBD. And for her, getting her reluctant grandparents to try CBD was a big deal.

Williams considers herself an advocate of cannabis — the name of a plant that refers to both marijuana and hemp. In order for cannabis to be considered hemp, it must be less than .03% THC, the chemical that produces a “high” in marijuana. CBD is a non-psychoactive compound derived from hemp.

Williams said she decided to stay in Columbia, where she believes cannabis products are less accepted, because she finds it rewarding to change the opinions of people who are apprehensive about CBD.

But Williams wasn’t always so accepting of cannabis products.

“D.A.R.E did a good one with me,” Williams said. “I was very scared.”

It wasn’t until Williams’ second year of college that a friend she trusted convinced her to do more research about cannabis. She said she tried cannabis herself, and realized it wasn’t what she thought it was. Then, she heard the story of Charlotte Figi, a girl who was having more than 300 violent seizures a week, and was being treated with CBD extract.

“Coming from the background I do, I understood the public’s concern, but I had also done all the research and I understood why this little girl wasn’t getting high and I wanted to just help people understand,” Williams said. “Because they clearly just didn’t understand, at the root of why cannabis and CBD works is this amazing system — the endocannabinoid system.”

Several studies have shown links to CBD as an effective treatment for severe epilepsy like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, according to a Harvard medical school blog. It’s also commonly used to treat anxiety, insomnia and inflammation caused by arthritis. However, there is no comprehensive study about the true effectiveness of CBD.

Williams said she knows CBD doesn’t help everyone, but her goal is to give people the confidence to at least try it. She considers CBD a tool in the “wellness toolbox,” of natural remedies like herbs, essential oils and massage.

In addition to providing product reviews and information about CBD, Hempsley sells CBD-based products. | Zhihan Huang/Missouri Business Alert

“When you live in a ‘legal state’ like Colorado or California, you can walk into a dispensary and have all of your questions answered by a knowledgeable professional,” Williams says on the Hempsley website. “When you live in a place like Missouri, that’s not an option.”

Williams said being in the CBD industry feels like her feet are never quite on the ground because it’s changing all the time.

When President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, it removed hemp-derived products from the list of Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substance Act. Schedule I substances, which include drugs like marijuana, ecstasy and heroin, are considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The unlisting put CBD under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is currently taking public comment until July 16 following a public hearing.

The CBD market is expected to grow substantially. It’s predicted to reach $23 billion by 2023, according to Brightfieldfield Group, a cannabis research firm.

Still, Williams said there are obstacles for her company. For example, she can’t find a payment processor for selling CBD products online, because she said banks are still hesitant to work with CBD companies unless the business makes $250,000 in sales. Dan Viets, an attorney and board chair of the Missouri Cannabis Industry Association, said banking is an obstacle for anyone in the cannabis business. But he said the SAFE Banking Act, a pending bill in Congress, would create protections for institutions that provide financial services to businesses in the cannabis industry.

“It’s gathering steam all the time,” Viets said, “and it’s gathering bipartisan steam.”

For now, Hempsley reviews CBD products, which make up about 25-50% of its revenue. This involves looking through lab reports, and verifying that customers are consuming safe products. Nearly 70% of CBD sold online is mislabeled, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Williams said she wants her company to curate “the best of the best” products.

Going forward, she said, education will still be a main component of the company.

“In my opinion, education is what will ultimately drive sales, and drive sales to products that are safe and vetted,” Williams said. “It takes awhile to build that trust and ecosystem, but I think in the long run it pays off, and I don’t want to just be selling products that I am not educating about.”

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