On the main stage of the Raleigh Convention Center, physician Uma Dhanabalan gestures behind a podium, talking about scientific studies, research, and the global economy. It’s Thursday morning, and the third annual Southern Hemp Expo resembles nothing so much as a business conference. The only difference is the people.

Instead of men in business suits, there are middle-aged couples, millenials, and budding young entrepreneurs. Matthew Soares, of Massachusetts, drove 12 hours south to attend the expo, he told the INDY

“I’m starting a hemp clothing company,” Soares says. “I think there’s a business opportunity there, but I also think there’s a necessity to increase the use of industrial hemp for a variety of different things.”

From a young age, Soares says, he didn’t understand why the production of industrial hemp was suppressed. Today, he talks about how growing hemp can help return carbon to the Earth. There’s a huge need for regenerative farming, he says. 

“No plant is more efficient at sequestering carbon than industrial hemp,” Soares says. “It’s a necessity, environmentally, for us to do this. It makes no sense that it’s not being cultivated on a really large scale in the United States.”

Soares’s business is a safe bet in an uncertain industry. Although some cannabis products became legal in North Carolina in 2015, many still exist in a grey area. 

The line is a blurry one. Any cannabis derivative with less than 0.3 percent THC—the chemical in marijuana responsible for its characteristic high—is legal to grow and sell. That includes CBD and other compounds like CBN and CBG, which don’t have a psychoactive effect. Although research is scarce, hemp products are often advertised for their alleged calming or anti-inflammatory properties, as sleep aids or pain relievers.

On the other hand, there are compounds like delta-8, an alternate form of THC often described as “weed light.” While delta-8 will give people a high, its effects are usually less intense than traditional marijuana (as long as you don’t take too much), says Tanya Durand, owner of The Hemp Store, with locations in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest. 

“Delta-8 THC is an isomer of cannabis,” Durand says. “So it’s naturally occurring in the cannabis plant, but in order to produce large amounts of it, they do have to process it from CBD. It turns into delta-8 THC, which is psychoactive. It’s very similar to delta-9 THC, which is the main component in marijuana.”

The legality of delta-8 is somewhat ambiguous, Paul Adams, industrial hemp program manager at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told the INDY in an email. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, synthesized or manufactured THC products like delta-8 are just as illegal as marijuana. But, Adams adds, “It seems that if Delta-8 THC could be extracted from a hemp plant directly in volumes large enough to use then that delta-8 would be legal.

“It is unclear if CBD derived from hemp and then acted upon to create Delta-8 THC results in a legal product,” he says. 

So far, the law has given dispensaries enough leeway to sell delta-8. The new compound is definitely the current craze, Durand says, with about 70 percent of her customers looking for it when they come into the store. Not everyone, though, is looking to get high. 

“That’s the surprising part,” Durand says. “We get people who are about to turn 21, waiting to be able to purchase it. We have middle-aged people coming in, older people who said they’ve never tried it but heard from a friend that it really helped them with their arthritis or whatever it was. We’re seeing all kinds of people.”

Delta-8 and other THC alternatives have divided the cannabis community into people who think the plant should primarily be used to make industrial products like clothing and biofuel, and dispensary owners who believe in the medical benefits of CBD and THC, some of whom are in favor of widespread legalization of marijuana. 

One of those owners is Durand, who says she’s used illegal cannabis in the past to treat migraines, postpartum depression, and anxiety, and was later amazed at the benefits of hemp. 

“I’ve always believed that cannabis was medicinal,” Durand says. 

North Carolina may soon take the first step toward legalization with a bill that would allow the use of medical marijuana. If approved, Senate Bill 711, or the Compassionate Care Act, would be one of the strictest in the country, allowing the use of marijuana only for patients with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, or PTSD. Production and sale of medical marijuana would also be severely limited, with no more than 40 stores allowed statewide. 

The legalization of medical marijuana across the nation has been driven in part by scientific research showing cannabis can relieve chronic pain and may have benefits for nausea, spasms, and seizures. But with marijuana still classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, research is limited. 

The criminalization of marijuana has created a catch-22 in the rapidly growing hemp industry. Sellers of CBD or other cannabinoids are barred from advertising them as medically beneficial because there’s not enough research to prove they are—most of the evidence is anecdotal. On the other hand, doctors and scientists who want to discover what benefits CBD and other cannabinoids can have, if any, are hindered by severe restrictions on research, a long-lasting legacy from the war on drugs. 

At the hemp expo, small business owners are selling every cannabis product you can imagine—cigars, cigarettes, pre-rolls, vape cartridges, gummies, chocolate bars, tinctures, dog treats. College students looking for delta-8 walk alongside third-generation farmers investing in a new crop. 

At one hemp dispensary, it feels like you’ve walked back into the 1960s, with a large sign that reads, “Find your groove.” In the next booth, managers at Aurum Labs explain how their scientists test hemp and cannabis products to determine their purity and potency, identifying different strains and looking for traces of pesticides or heavy metals. An entire micro-economy has sprung up around this now-legal plant—businesses catering to hemp farmers who need equipment, insurance, development, testing, and distribution. 

The question is, will it last? 

You won’t find any doubt at the hemp expo. 

“Right now, we’re all pioneers,” says one business rep, an insurance agent. “(Soon), it’s gonna be real.” 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.