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The infused drinks here fall into a legal gray area.Courtesy Cleen Craft

Cleen Craft is like every major 2019 craze rolled into one. This new Belltown bar serves artisanal sparkling water (check) with CBD (check) that customers can combine with a variety of alcohol like Aperol and Mezcal (double check). There's just one problem: It might be totally illegal.

Infusing CBD (or cannabidiol) into food and serving it in public is currently in a legal gray area. Farmers are legally able to grow CBD, one of pot’s non-psychoactive compounds, after Congress legalized CBD-rich industrial hemp in late 2018. Washington state even has its own industrial hemp growing program run by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). But while it’s legal to grow CBD, both the federal government and the WSDA consider it illegal to infuse CBD into food and drinks.

The county health department said they have yet to approve of Cleen Craft.

Marcus Charles, the longtime Seattle restaurateur behind the new bar, said he hopes the county and state government allow his business to survive.

“I think time is going to tell what happens, but I’m hoping the regulators and the industry can find some common ground,” Charles said.

Cleen Craft sells both CBD “Mocktails” like the Garden Spritz (CBD lime soda with cucumber, rosemary, and mint for $10) or The Jitterbug (CBD cola, espresso, cinnamon, clove, honey for $8) and CBD-infused cocktails, like the rum-based The Islander ($15) or Aperol and sparkling wine-based Summer Spritz ($12). The store also sells CBD sodas to go in either 4-packs ($15.95) or 32-ounce growlers ($19.99).

Cleen Craft is located on Second Avenue in one half of the former Mama’s Mexican Kitchen. Charles bought the beloved Mexican restaurant in 2016 and renovated one half of the space into Cleen Craft. What remains of Mama’s is now open for private events but is no longer an operating restaurant, according to Charles. A strip of businesses next door, including Rocco’s, Neon Boots, and the last remaining building from before the Denny Regrade, are all slated to be demolished. But Charles said that demolition does not include his businesses.

Hilary Karasz, a spokesperson for Public Health—Seattle & King County, said the restaurant is not yet permitted by their agency.

“The facility does not appear to be currently permitted with us,” Karasz said in an e-mail. “One of our inspectors will visit to learn more about the operation and to determine whether it is required to be permitted by Public Health.”

Charles, who said his bar has been open for about six weeks, said that the county health department came to the restaurant this week but did not tell him to shut down. Charles pointed out that a number of other restaurants in Seattle, including Rachel’s Ginger Beer, are already selling CBD-infused foods.

“They came by yesterday and I think it’s going to be a question of tolerance. Are they going to come down hard on this new industry or are they going to find a way for the industry to move forward?” Charles said.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved CBD as a food additive, which doesn’t bode well for the state’s food laws permitting CBD. Karasz said the state’s food code is based on the FDA’s, but she did not say if the state’s food code explicitly barred CBD in food.

CBD drinks may also be under fire from the WSDA. The department released an update on Monday that said while certain parts of the hemp plant can be used in food—including hemp seeds, hemp seed oil, and hemp protein powder—CBD is a no-go.

“To be clear, CBD is not currently allowed as a food ingredient, under federal and state law,” the WSDA announcement said.

But the WSDA doesn’t seem ready to shut down restaurants in Seattle serving CBD drinks, according to WSDA spokesperson Hector Castro.

“The local county health would have jurisdiction over the business in question,” Castro said. “WSDA regulates on the processing side of food, not retail.”

Charles said Cleen Craft is sourcing their CBD from hemp grown in Colorado and Montana, but they hope to purchase hemp from Washington hemp farmers when a local source becomes available. Cleen Craft currently holds a hemp processing and hemp marketing license from the WSDA, so their food additive business may be running afoul of WSDA rules.

The state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB), which regulates medical and recreational cannabis stores, isn’t likely to get involved. But Brian Smith, a spokesperson for the LCB, warned that most CBD is not regulated for quality. If it came from outside of the state’s recreational cannabis market “it is outside of LCB jurisdiction and buyer beware," Smith said. "There is a lack of regulation around CBD at either the state or federal level.”

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Charles said Cleen Craft’s bar is only the beginning of what he wants his company to do with hemp, with the hopes of launching hemp textiles, building materials, and bio resin products in the future. Charles, who co-founded the cannabis company Juju Joints, said industrial hemp has potential to reverse climate change by absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere. He hopes Cleen Craft’s Belltown bar can be a launching point for that movement.

“You have to start somewhere so we decided to do a little bit of trailblazing to see what happens,” Charles said.

We’ll see if regulators let Charles keep Cleen Craft in business.

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