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The rise of CBD alcohols stirs up controversy and hope



Ms. Corina Restrepo noticed something unfamiliar on her inspection of local liquor stores November 12.  As part of her work as adviser to the Greenwich Together Youth Coalition (GTYC), an organization that works to prevent teen substance abuse, she was performing one of their frequent environmental scans.  For the first time, their evaluation revealed several stores carrying tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-laced alcohol products.  The coalition members were not the only ones to notice the change.  Sergeant Ernest Mulhern of the Greenwich Police Department investigates this rising trend.


CBD alcohol products emerge on liquor store shelves.  Courtesy of Ms. Restrepo

Various scientific studies have documented the dangers of mixing marijuana, specifically cannabidiol (CBD), with alcoholic beverages.  CBD contains approximately 0.03 percent THC without its high-inducing feeling, according to forbes.com.  Combining CBD and its light dosage of THC with alcohol enhances the side effects of both alcohol and THC independently, such as dehydration and impairment, as well as long-term consequences of mental health struggles, kidney diseases, and addiction.  Additionally, due to the increased potency of the combined beverage, the overdose rates of both substances increase, according to alcohol.org


However, the CBD-laced drinks available on Greenwich liquor store shelves are not alcoholic but rather marijuana-laced concoctions with the taste and appearance of familiar liquor products.  For example, instead of classic hard seltzers such as White Claw, brands such as RisEau use the same healthful, fun marketing and flavor profile to advertise their CBD beverages, according to themanual.com.  Notably, companies such as Kalo promote their drinks to appeal to youthful consumers by highlighting the fruity tastes and cool, eye-catching packaging of their goods.


Ms. Restrepo has lived in the Greenwich area for most of her life, so protecting the community’s youth is particularly important to her.  In 2018, she joined Kids in Crisis, a Cos Cob organization dedicated to supporting teens who struggle with mental health and substance abuse disorders.  As part of her work with Kids in Crisis, she transitioned to supporting its partner association, Greenwich Together.  Currently, she serves as supervisor and aide to the student-run youth coalition outside of her role as Prevention Coordinator for Kids in Crisis.


In her work with prevention, Ms. Restrepo has discovered loopholes in drug regulations that cause many banned products to fall into the hands of liquor store owners and consumers.  With the GTYC, she and a committee of teens work to address and uncover risk and preventative factors related to adolescent substance use.  These factors range from social networks and peer pressure to product marketing and placement.  Under the guidance of Ms. Restrepo, the student committee visits regional stores in their environmental scans to assess these potential risks to teen consumers.  Recently, since Connecticut legalized marijuana in 2021, Ms. Restrepo has noticed an increase in these product sales in convenience stores, smoke shops, and liquor stores.  She commented on her attempts to stay attentive to the changing substance products in stores and local regulations.


“We rely on our coalition members, environmental scans, training, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to keep us up to date,” Ms. Restrepo said.  “Our coalition members, including our youth, are one of our best sources of information because they are out in the community and have first-hand insight on what is going on.  Our environmental scans also give us first-hand information on what is being sold in the stores.  As a coalition, our members also receive updates from the CDC and have access to attend training by prevention professionals.”


Sergeant Mulhern works in the Detective Division of the Greenwich Police Department and focuses particularly on drug-related cases.  He has also noticed similar trends in the greater Greenwich area.  Although there are currently no stores in Greenwich that may legally sell marijuana with upwards of 0.03 percent THC, there are limited procedures in place to help support law enforcement in their regulation of these products.  According to Sergeant Mulhern, the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) has difficulty in prosecuting retailers who violate the terms of the marijuana licensing.  He commented on the struggles of regulating a new and unfamiliar substance.


The Greenwich Police Department conducts compliance checks to ensure local stores follow selling regulations.  Courtesy of Ms. Restrepo


“The DCP does not have authority over unlicensed sellers of cannabis,” Sergeant Mulhern said.  “That means if a business initially obtains a license to sell vape products or tobacco, and the license expires, then the DCP no longer has authority over them.  The CT DCP cannot seize illegal cannabis products.  Enforcement of violations that are criminal in nature rests solely on law enforcement, the opposite of the law prior to October 2023.  Prior to October 2023, the product manufacturers were under no obligation to specify their ingredients as they are now.”


Despite previous loose regulations, Sergeant Mulhern still has hope for future guidelines for the sale of marijuana products.  He discussed the evolution of his role as a law enforcement officer regarding these substances.


“At the moment, if a product portrays itself to be primarily CBD, it needs to clearly depict that it has less than 0.3 percent THC in order to be sold in Connecticut,” Sergeant Mulhern said.  “As law enforcement, I’m optimistic about the new legislation providing us with clear guidelines on CBD/hemp/marijuana.  As we conduct investigations into repeat compliance retailers, we now have the capability of pursuing criminal charges against the proprietors.”

Advertisers market CBD and hemp-infused seltzers with bright colors and fun flavors to attract younger audiences. 


Similar to Sergeant Mulhern, Ms. Restrepo and her team of youth conduct environmental scans to prevent stores from advertising to teenage consumers.  In its scans, the GTYC focuses on identifying risk factors that might trigger a rise in youth substance misuse. Ms. Restrepo remarked on the process of evaluating liquor stores for potentially harmful products.

“Our main focus while doing an environmental scan is looking at the place, product, promotion, and price,” Ms. Restrepo said.  “For place, we are looking at both the location of the establishment as well as the placement of things in the store.  For example, we may pay attention to whether a store is in a residential area, near a school, or next to other stores.  We will also look at where the products are placed.  Are they behind glass?  Are they placed out of reach of children?  We take a look at the products. Are there new products on the market?  Promotion of products both inside and outside of the store.  The price of products and how the prices impact the accessibility to youth.”


Despite their lack of alcohol, these CBD seltzers and pseudo-liquors may still pose other health risks to users.  However, experts in the field of cannabis products have yet to produce conclusive research on these products.  Some still worry about the health effects of the beverages, particularly concerning their expansion in the American market, according to The New York Times.  


The global market for marijuana-based drinks increased by 18 percent between 2017 and 2021, according to futuremarketinsights.com.  In a survey of around 2000 American adults July 2023, ten percent of respondents noted that they had tried THC-infused beverages.  This number rose to 19 for millennial survey respondents, according to The New York Times.  Although the potential risks and benefits of these products are yet unknown, some advertisers have promoted these products as a healthier alternative to their alcoholic counterparts due to their lower calorie count.  However, due to the lack of research, it is difficult to assess a direct comparison between both beverages.


Ms. Restrepo believes that with increased intervention, the Greenwich community can become more aware of the potential risks of these products, and regulations can continue to weed out dangerous commodities.  She spoke about the role of prevention in helping to improve substance abuse awareness.


“As a social worker, I believe that in order to make changes in our communities, we need to focus on the bigger picture,” Ms. Restrepo said.  “Although treatment is also important, it is just as important to look at how we prevent these things from even happening in the first place.  Prevention is how we make long-term changes which is what led me to my role with Greenwich Together.  I have seen how mental health and substance use impact our youth and families and have worked with these individuals directly in times of crisis.  There is a story that gets told often in prevention that says that there are two people at the bottom of a stream, and they notice that people keep falling into the stream in panic.  One person jumps in to try to help them, and the other person goes to the top of the stream to see what is causing them to fall.  Both roles are important, but our focus at Greenwich Together is to go to the top of the stream.”




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