Over the past three years, a wave of “CBD-only” laws has swept through the American South. In these deeply conservative states, the laws were seen by many as imperfect workarounds. In theory, they would keep marijuana illegal while allowing patients—mostly children with debilitating seizures—to use non-psychoactive, low-THC cannabidiol (CBD) oil. But in most CBD-only states, making or selling the oil remains illegal—and it’s still against the law to grow cannabis, which is the only source of CBD oil.

In the South, parents must rely on clandestine connections and untested products to calm their kids' seizures.

Some politicians praised the laws as commonsense, bipartisan measures. Others were skeptical from the start. Since most CBD-only laws keep distribution illegal, neither the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) nor the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) consider them true medical marijuana programs. Others have criticized the science behind CBD-only laws, arguing that “whole plant” treatments, which rely on THC, CBD, and a host of other cannabinoids to provide an entourage effect, are far more effective. “Unlike other drugs that may work well as single compounds, synthesized in a lab,” Sanjay Gupta has written, “cannabis may offer its most profound benefit as a whole plant.”

I live in Texas, which is about to become a CBD-only state. Texas’s Compassionate Use Act is scheduled to take effect in late 2017. It may allow for cultivation and sale; that has yet to be determined by state officials. With that in mind, I wanted to know how CBD-only laws were working out in other states. Are these laws allowing patients to get the medicine they need?

Atlanta is now a major terminus in the CBD patient underground.

To answer that question, I spent months getting to know patients and caregivers across the South. I traveled to Colorado to meet a producer who supplies Southerners with high-CBD, low-THC products. I met patients and suppliers in Atlanta, which has become a major terminus in the CBD patient underground. Instead of finding patients helped by a safe, robust CBD-only market, I found a region where fearful parents still must rely on clandestine connections and untested products to keep their children healthy. In the South, CBD-only laws seem to protect mostly the re-election prospects of those politicians too timid to create true medical cannabis programs.

In most medical marijuana states, patients and caregivers can pick up cannabis products at dispensaries. But in CBD-only states, the search for relief leads people to places not often associated with medicine. For example: a gas station parking lot.

That’s where Georgia resident Rebecca (not her real name(, whose 15-year-old daughter suffers from seizures, says she found herself one afternoon last fall. She pulled up to a gas station on Moreland Avenue, in a seedy part of east Atlanta. In her silver SUV sat an ounce of black-market cannabis, tucked away in a Target bag.

One mom gave cannabis to another after stopping by a birthday party.

Rebecca, a former police officer, is registered as a CBD caregiver in Georgia. She parked at the gas station to rendezvous with another mom. The two met through a Facebook group for cannabis patients. Rebecca knew the mom wasn’t registered with the state, but that didn’t faze her. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I know somebody needs help, and I have the access, and I say, ‘No, sorry,’” she told me over the phone. “I think it’s bullshit that you can’t get medicine for your loved one because they don’t qualify.”

Rebecca waited for a few minutes at the gas station. Another car pulled up, and Rebecca climbed in. “I don’t know if this works,” she admitted as she handed the bag to Jennifer Conforti. Conforti, who was coming from a children’s party, offered Rebecca a slice of birthday cake.

RELATED STORY
CBD and the Brain: What Does It Do and What Is It Good For?

Though Conforti (pictured in the featured image, top) isn’t a registered caregiver in Georgia’s CBD program, she told me she needs the oil to prevent her autistic daughter Abby’s bouts of self-harm. Conforti has been vocal about Abby’s medical regimen. Last year Conforti spoke before the Georgia state legislature, where she explained how the state’s overly restrictive rules forced her to obtain cannabis for her daughter on the black market.

Conforti’s blunt honesty made her an unlikely hero in the fight for medical marijuana. In a Facebook post, State Representative Allen Peake called her “courageous.” Even so, another sympathetic state representative cautioned her: “Every sheriff watched your testimony.” Conforti took heed, confronting her local sheriff at a public event. “I love you,” she told him. “I voted for you. I think you’re fabulous. But I’m giving my kid medicine and it works.”

Possession is legal, obtaining it isn’t

Georgia’s strictures are typical of most American CBD-only laws. If you’re a patient with one of eight conditions covered by the state’s law, and your physician recommends CBD oil, the Georgia Department of Health will send you a medical card. Congratulations: You can now possess up to 20 ounces of CBD oil. After that, you’re on your own.

Georgia law won’t allow anyone to buy or sell CBD oil anywhere in the state. Theoretically, you could have it mailed to you, or pick it up elsewhere. But shipping cannabis products — or driving them across the country — is, in the eyes of state and federal law, drug trafficking.

RELATED STORY
Qualifying Conditions for Medical Marijuana by State

“In order to comply with these laws, individuals would have to violate not only federal law but, in many cases, the laws of other states,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

'To comply with these laws, you'd have to violate both federal law and, in many cases, the laws of other states.'
Paul Armentano, Deputy Director, NORML

Another problem with the CBD-only laws is the entourage effect. Study after study has shown that cannabidiol by itself may help some conditions. But it isn’t good for everything. And it’s often best in combination with THC and other cannabinoids. THC, not CBD, is the cannabis ingredient with anti-nausea properties. “Whole plant” remedies appear to work better for a number of illnesses, including multiple sclerosis and possibly autism.

RELATED STORY
Can You Get Away with Mailing Cannabis Through the USPS?

Many parents I spoke to were weary of CBD-only medicines. They believed, based on personal experience, that medicines combining CBD with some level of THC were far more effective. In November, Leafly profiled a Florida mom named Jacel Delgadillo, whose 5-year-old son, Bruno, suffers from Dravet syndrome. CBD oil, Delgaldillo said, certainly seemed to help with Bruno’s seizures. But the first time she tried a medicine with more THC, she said, was the first time Bruno had a seizure-free afternoon.

“I truly believe that CBD is like the supplement,” Delgaldillo told me over the phone. “THC is what did the most.”

Conforti doesn’t think CBD-only products do much for her autistic daughter, Abby. And since autism isn’t a qualifying condition under Georgia law, it seemed silly to follow the program’s strict requirements. Why pay more for less THC and the same amount of hassle? It made more sense, Conforti figured, to make medicine herself. So that’s what she does.

RELATED STORY
Reviving Bruno: A Day in the Life of a 5-Year-Old Florida Cannabis Patient

Georgia mother Jennifer Conforti, pictured here with daughter Abby, says she needs CBD oil to help treat Abby’s autism. She told her local sheriff: “I voted for you. I think you’re fabulous. But I’m giving my kid medicine and it works.” (Melissa Golden for Leafly)

An evening with the buyers club

On a drizzly evening last October, Conforti invited me to watch her cook her latest batch of cannabis extract. Nowadays she buys cannabis leaves from California on the black market, then brews them in a clear high-proof alcohol like Everclear. In the kitchen of her home, in the suburbs of Atlanta, a double-boiler of green liquid bubbled softly. Cooking alongside her cannabis tincture were the makings of a Southern party: meatballs in tomato sauce, a loaf of bread stuffed with green onions and cheddar.

RELATED STORY
Recipe: How To Make Basic Cannabis-Infused Butter

As Conforti cooked, her husband pecked at the appetizers. Abby pranced around the kitchen, popping into the living room now and then to watch her favorite PBS show, “Dinosaur Train.”

I asked Conforti about the risks she took. She waved off the concern. Her cannabis distributor, she explained, vacuum-sealed his packages at least four times, to keep the smell hidden. But even if the authorities did discover her, she said, what would they possibly do to her — a cheerful suburban mom who just wanted her kid to be healthy?

RELATED STORY
How Does Cannabis Consumption Affect Autism?

Conforti’s husband wandered into the kitchen just in time to offer a different answer to her rhetorical question. What can they do? “Deliver it,” he said, “and then arrest you at the door.”

Conforti laughed. “Probably,” she said.

About thirty minutes later the cannabis tincture was done. Conforti strained out the solids with a cheesecloth. She put the bag of cannabis back in her freezer, next to some frozen groceries.

“It’s literally that easy,” she said. “I learned it on YouTube.”

First names only, please

The connection between Jennifer Conforti and Rebecca worked out well, but things don’t always go so smoothly. When patients are forced to rely on underground sources for their medicine, it’s difficult for them to vet their providers and their products.

One of Conforti’s connections in the medical cannabis underground was a man—I’ll call him Oliver—who was also raising an autistic child. Oliver had a friendly, dimply smile and the build of a football player. Conforti had invited him to stop by so he and I could meet. Oliver was a chatty guy, happy to share his feelings on pretty much everything. But when I pressed him on his enterprise — several people had told me he made CBD oil for about 300 kids in Georgia — he told me he didn’t want to talk about it.

One CBD oil maker refused to show patients his lab tests because, he said, they could used be used as evidence against him.

There were some strange things about Oliver’s operation. His business partner, who processed the oil, was a registered sex offender. (This wasn’t just hearsay. I verified it with the Georgia state sex offender registry.) Several sources told me that a connection in Colorado had been helping Oliver obtain cannabis, but stopped when he learned about the partner’s history.

There were other oddities. Oliver said his oil was third-party lab-tested. But many parents had never seen any actual lab results. A few kids had bad reactions to the product. When one mother complained that her autistic son’s symptoms were worsening, she said Oliver “never listened.”

A couple weeks later, I called Oliver to press him on some of these issues. He insisted that he got his oil tested. “Every drop of everything has been lab-tested,” he told me. “It’s just a matter of, you cannot show them that.”

RELATED STORY
Cannabis Testing: The Importance of Independent Third Party Analyses of Cannabis Products

If his test results got into the wrong hands, he explained, they could be used as evidence to bring him up on drug charges. But when I asked him if I could see his lab results, he grew agitated. He declined, saying, “I’ve had enough.”

Oliver felt he was being unfairly vilified by people who didn’t understand how risky it was to make cannabis oil in Georgia.

Oliver felt burned by his own generosity. He hadn’t advertised his oil, he told me. Desperate parents found him and practically begged for the stuff, he said. And while he acknowledged that some kids did react negatively to his products, he felt he was being unfairly vilified by people who didn’t understand how risky it was to make cannabis oil in Georgia.

“They want to critique me for helping people, I’ll stop helping people,” he said. “There’s very little I’m as passionate about in this world as helping autistic families. I put my personal freedom on the line only to be questioned and bashed.”

When I asked about his business partner’s legal status, Oliver said the question was “case in point why I’m done.” Oliver said he had decided to stop distributing cannabis oil to other parents.

“I’m going to help my own son get medicine,” he said. “That’s it.”

Sebastien Cotte saved his 6-year-old son Jagger with CBD oil from Colorado. Now living in Georgia, he’s an advocate and the education director for the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation. (Melissa Golden for Leafly)

Harsh laws turn parents into activists

Many parents do their best to play by the rules.

Sebastien Cotte was one of the first CBD parents in Georgia. In the summer of 2014, desperation drove Cotte, the father of a six-year-old son with a rare mitochondrial disease, to look for CBD oil even before it was legal in the state. That August, with his son Jagger nearing death, his family piled into a car and made the 20-plus hour drive from Atlanta to Colorado, where cannabis oil was legal and plentiful.

A desperate father drove from Georgia to Colorado to find CBD oil. Doctors gave his son a 50-50 chance of surviving the trip.

“That was a horrible trip,” Cotte said. “We had to stop every three or four hours.” Jagger’s muscles cramped up if he sat in a car seat for too long. And since Jagger needed to use a rechargable oxygen tank, Cotte said, “we would literally run out of oxygen.” Before they left Georgia, Cotte said, hospice doctors told him his son had a 50% chance of surviving the trip.

Cotte’s destination was Denver. The Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation, a non-profit that helps underage patients get CBD oil, kept its headquarters in the Denver suburb of Longmont. (The foundation has since moved to Colorado Springs.) The foundation provides cannabis oil to about 2,000 patients nationwide, according to the group’s founder, Jason Cranford. Ten percent of those — around 200 patients — live in the American South. That number may sound small, but consider how few Southern patients there are, at least officially. Georgia has fewer than 1,000 patients in its registry. Michigan, which has roughly the same population as Georgia, counts more than 182,000 medical cannabis patients.

Denver had another thing going for it. The Mile High City is one of the few to have a pediatric hospice. If it came to it, the hospice could at least make Jagger’s final days a little more painless.

RELATED STORY
CBD vs. THC: Why Is CBD Not Psychoactive?

Cotte’s big gamble paid off. Using a number of the foundation’s products, including its signature “Haleigh’s Hope” CBD oil, Jagger stabilized. The life expectancy for a kid with Jagger’s illness was around four years, Cotte said. When Cotte and I spoke last autumn, Jagger was about to turn six.

That road trip turned Sebastien Cotte into an activist. He and his family moved back to Georgia. Working with Rep. Allen Peake, the Georgia legislator who’s been a pioneer on medical cannabis issues, Cotte helped make Georgia the first state in the country to include mitochondrial disease as a qualifying condition. Last year Peake convinced his fellow legislators to expand Georgia’s list of qualifying conditions and raise the allowable THC level in CBD products to five percent, far higher than most other Southern states.

RELATED STORY
We Speak with Rep. Allen Peake, Georgia’s Medical Cannabis Bulldog

If you drive, “avoid Kansas at all costs.”

Medical marijuana advocate Sebastien Cotte shows off his THC molecule socks. (Melissa Golden for Leafly)
Medical marijuana advocate Sebastien Cotte shows off his THC molecule socks. (Melissa Golden for Leafly)

Cotte now serves as the national business and education director for the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation. When he’s not helping to care for Jagger, he travels around the country teaching a free two-hour “Cannabis 101” course to parents of patients.

“The course is very basic: What’s THC, what’s CBD, what are terpenes, what does a lab report look like,” Cotte explained.

'I can’t tell them how to get it if it’s illegal.'
Sebastien Cotte, Education Director, Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation

Inevitably, parents always ask about how to actually obtain CBD oil in the South. If their kids responded to oil containing less than 0.3% THC, which is below the federal threshold for hemp, the answer is simple: Order it online and have it shipped to your home. But if the child needs something stronger, Cotte finds himself in a tricky position.

“I have to be very, very careful answering questions like that,” he said. “I can’t tell them how to get it if it’s illegal.”

However, Cotte could say what other parents were doing: getting it in Colorado themselves. Despite the DEA’s recent statement on CBD oil, patients and parents who need CBD products with less than 0.3 percent THC can order it online from dozens of web-based companies. There are no safeguards or assurances about what impurities those products might contain, however. There’s no guarantee they even contain cannabidiol.

That’s not a slam against CBD producers. There simply is no quality-assurance testing required of CBD products manufactured outside of legal, regulated states. Parents and patients have no way of knowing the true CBD content of their medicine. In theory, they could pay for their own test (if they could find a lab, in the South, willing to test a Schedule I drug) but that would put them at legal risk. By contrast, legal states like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon require stringent state-regulated testing. If you buy it in a legal state, you know exactly what you’re getting.

RELATED STORY
Kansas Cops Can’t Stop Every Car With Colorado Plates, Federal Appeals Court Rules

So many parents did just that. They drove to Colorado. Some flew there. Almost everyone picked up the oil itself, because buying the plant would be pointless and risky. And everyone who drove stayed out of Kansas while carrying the cannabis oil home.

“Avoid Kansas at all costs,” Cotte said.

Best to avoid Oklahoma and Nebraska, too. Those were the three states that sued Colorado after it legalized marijuana, claiming that too much cannabis was seeping over their borders. Police in those states are actively looking for people smuggling cannabis, Cotte said. Last year, in fact, a federal court ordered Kansas police officers to stop targeting cars crossing the state line from Colorado. Officers had been routinely stopping out-of-state automobiles and searching them for cannabis.

You were better off driving south out of Colorado, he said, motoring through laid-back New Mexico, then enduring the 10 to 12 hour drive across Texas. Despite its law-and-order posturing, Cotte said the Lone Star state wasn’t so hard on CBD parents. He’d even heard about one family who, after being stopped by police in Texas, had the cops return their oil and send them on their way.

RELATED STORY
Supreme Court Rejects States’ Challenge to Colorado Cannabis Law

Serving the South: Flowering H.O.P.E.

Seeking a trusted source of medicine, many of the parents and patients I spoke to relied on the organization Cotte worked with, the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation. Jason Cranford’s organization maintains a storefront in Colorado Springs, where patients can pick up oil under the 0.3% THC threshold. Its headquarters are about 100 miles west of that, in the high plains of the Rockies.

That’s where I found Cranford, tending to his crop on a sunny autumn day in the Rocky Mountains. His organization’s 20-acre property contains two rows of grow houses — one for Flowering H.O.P.E., the other for Cranford’s retail company called South Park Farma — clumped against a backdrop of aspen-covered slopes. There’s a modern, suburban-style home where Cranford lives, and a small outbuilding he describes as his “research and development” lab.

Cranford's foundation is a lifeline for parents living beyond the CBD-only line.

Cranford is a stocky man with a quiet but cheerful persona. He’s quite comfortable discussing cannabis, maybe because he’s been around it most of his life. His father, a member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, grew marijuana in Georgia in the 1970s. In 2007, Cranford moved to Humboldt County, California, to pursue the same career. In 2009, when he heard rumors that Colorado would soon license growers, he relocated there.

On the day I visited him, Cranford wore a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “#illegallyhealed.” He led me to his lab and R&D building, where dozens of bottles of the foundation’s most popular product, the 0.3% THC cannabis oil called “Haleigh’s Hope,” sat in boxes on a metal shelf. Samples of the oil, Cranford told me, are tested for microbials, pesticides and dosages by Phytatech, a state-licensed lab. Parents can request the lab results, Cranford said. He’s happy to provide them, a fact that several of his patients confirmed with me. After a batch is tested, about 90% of it gets shipped out of state.

Cranford occasionally receives a request from an out-of-state parent who needs cannabis oil containing more than 0.3% THC. Even if that level is legal in their state (Washington or Oregon, for instance), Cranford can’t ship it across state lines.

“We’re strict,” he said. “We don’t give [oil with more than 0.3% THC] to a child unless they have a Colorado card. They get mad at me, but I do it to protect them.”

Forced by Georgia state law to cook her own CBD oil for her daughter, Jennifer Conforti boils cannabis in Everclear, then measures out doses of oil into oral dispensing syringes. (Melissa Golden for Leafly)

Living under Leni’s Law in Alabama

One of Cranford’s clients is Jody Mitchell, an Alabama mother whose 12-year-old son once suffered from hundreds of epileptic seizures daily. Mitchell first learned about cannabis oil and CBD in 2014. At that point, she’d tried about 20 drugs for her son and was considering brain surgery for him. Then a friend stumbled upon a TV documentary about treating seizures with cannabis oil. She invited Mitchell over.

“I’m sitting on their sofa looking at them like, ‘Are you serious? This is a viable option?’” Mitchell recalled. “And I’m thinking, ‘OK — weed’s never killed anybody.’”

'Can I meet my maker knowing I didn't do everything to help my child?'
Jody Mitchell, Alabama mother of an epileptic son

At that point, medical cannabis of any kind was illegal in Alabama. Mitchell’s parents thought she was crazy for considering it. Her husband threatened to have her arrested. Mitchell, who prays over decisions about her son’s health, was preoccupied with other concerns. “I have gone as far as medical science can go for me,” she remembered thinking. “Can I meet my maker knowing I didn’t do everything to help my child?”

Fortunately for Mitchell and her son, legal relief soon arrived. In April 2014, Alabama passed its first extremely limited CBD law, known as Carly’s Law.

Under Carly’s Law, the state legislature limited cannabis-based medicine to a single clinical trial at the University of Alabama. Specifically, it was a three-year trial for Epidiolex, GW Pharma’s CBD-based drug currently undergoing Phase III FDA trials. Mitchell enrolled her son, Robert, in the study, but eventually pulled him out after a disagreement with the doctors. “I said, ‘Let’s keep him on the lowest dose,’ because that’s what he did best, and they said, ‘That’s not what this trial is for.’” A month later, she began giving him illegal cannabis oil.

Alabama legislators eventually revised that original measure by adopting Leni’s Law, which went into effect this past June. It was barely a law, in the sense that it didn’t actually legalize anything. Instead, the bill was written to offer medical cannabis patients an affirmative defense, which could be used in court by CBD patients charged with drug possession.

RELATED STORY
How Many Jobs Depend on Legal Cannabis? We Did the Math

If it’s super-low THC, call for delivery

Since Leni’s Law didn’t allow anyone in Alabama to make or sell the oil, Mitchell still had to find it elsewhere.

She heard about the Flowering H.O.P.E. Foundation through the grapevine. “One talk led to another talk led to, ‘Oh, I can get oil from this person,’” she said. Her son responded to CBD oil that fell below the 0.3 percent THC threshold. That meant she could order it online from Jason Cranford’s foundation in Colorado and have it shipped to Alabama.

'You end up tracking it every five minutes,' said an Alabama mother, waiting for her child's CBD delivery. 'Did it just get delayed in Memphis?'

“It’s one of those things you track every five minutes, like: ‘OK, did [the package] just get delayed in Memphis?’” she said. But at least she didn’t have to worry about state or federal drug-trafficking charges quite as much as other caregivers.

When I spoke to parents and caregivers, they often seemed unfazed by the laws they were breaking. They were helping their loved ones, they told me. If they were to be arrested, many told me they were confident that public opinion—and perhaps the votes of a jury—would be on their side.

After a few weeks of reporting this story, however, I noticed something troubling. All the caregivers I’d met were white and, by and large, middle class. They were all the parents of very cute, very sick children. I met no people of color who were willing to talk about obtaining CBD oil for their children. And I met very few patients who were not children.

The effect was so pronounced that even distributors and policymakers would sometimes use the words “caregiver” and “parent” interchangeably. Was there an element of confirmation bias at play here? Was it true that most CBD oil users felt safe? I wondered if I was just talking to the people who felt the most insulated from the risk of arrest—middle class white parents with very sick, very sympathetic white children.

When I asked Flowering H.O.P.E. founder Jason Cranford about this, he chuckled. “We call them mommy lobbyists,” he said of this overlap between parent and activist. “You don’t mess with a momma bear and her cubs.”

RELATED STORY
This One Chart Captures Everything Wrong with NYC Cannabis Arrests

Race, class, and degrees of risk

In fact, it was that very image—ferocious white mothers testifying at state legislative hearings, demanding that lawmakers allow them to treat their sick children—that forced the passage of CBD-only laws in the first place.

I recalled what one middle-aged Georgia patient told me. Frank, not his real name, is a divorced father who struggles with multiple sclerosis. He asked me to obscure his identity, citing ongoing divorce proceedings. “Picture it this way,” he said. “You turn on the TV and you see me on crutches. Then you see a little kid on crutches. What causes more tears?”

Frank used to buy cannabis from street-corner sellers to alleviate his MS symptoms. Last year, after he got his Georgia medical card, he found a company that distributes CBD oil within the state. Frank connected me to the company’s co-founders, whom I’ll call Mike and Ben. They agreed to meet with me but asked that I obscure their identities, citing legal concerns.

Oil makers on the edge in Atlanta

I met Mike and Ben at their office in a picturesque section of north Atlanta. Something about the open but nondescript building, which sat against a forest stream, seemed like a perfect place for a semi-underground cannabis company. I walked upstairs and followed the mailbox numbers to their office. The door was open.

Mike welcomed me in with a big smile. The space was sparse and messy, with a box of promotional materials sitting against one wall. Ben was already there, along with two adult patients. Mike and Ben’s lab technician would show up a few minutes later, dragged inside on a leash by his service dog, a large German shepherd.

Mike and Ben know the risks. But their patients are battling Crohn's and PTSD. So they keep the oil flowing.

Mike and Ben made several products that exceeded Georgia’s limit of five percent THC. Otherwise, they said, they tried to obey the law when they could. They only treated patients with Georgia medical cards. They grew their cannabis in California, where medical cultivation was legal. They had a nice website where patients could check out a variety of well-branded products, which were tested by a lab in Colorado.

But, I pointed out, they were producing and distributing cannabis products in Georgia, where that was strictly forbidden. “We know that, at the end of the day, the door could get kicked down,” Ben told me.

Even getting the cannabis flower to Georgia could be difficult. “We still don’t know how it gets here,” Mike said.

“I have to go to church and pray,” Ben added, only half-joking.

RELATED STORY
The Art of Extraction, Part 6: Experts Talk Cannabis Extracts

Still, as we sat there chatting, it was difficult to imagine police officers bursting through the door. The five of us sat around eating artisanal donuts—with flavors like apple cobbler and banana cream pie—that Mike had brought that morning. As we ate, Ben pulled out a bong and nonchalantly fired it up.

Mike and Ben had managed to set up a real company with an office in the Atlanta suburbs. Was that a sign, I asked, that the state government didn’t put the enforcement of CBD laws high on its priority list? As an answer, Mike put a bottle of CBD oil on the table and then began to pantomime a police raid, playing the part of a gun-toting drug enforcement agent.

The point of Mike’s demonstration was that busting him would make the police look bad in the eyes of the public. “Optics,” Mike said. It was the same argument I’d heard from many parents. But Mike and Ben’s business focused on adult patients, not children. A few of them talked with me as they stopped by. There was Bradley, who battled Crohn’s disease. Bruce, a military veteran struggling with both Crohn’s and PTSD, joined us later for lunch at a local restaurant. After months of reporting on this story, Bruce was the only Southern patient of color I met.

Frank's crippling MS made him think about 'giving it up.' The oil he gets from Ben and Mike gave him his life back.

All three were adamant about how cannabis oil had changed their lives for the better. Since he began taking the medicine, Bradley said he had been able to earn his masters degree. He no longer had to rely on his mom. Bruce added his own story. “I haven’t been back to the VA [Veteran’s Adminstration] in two or three years,” he said. “When I was on those [pharmaceutical] meds, I got four DUIs, three felonies, and I got addicted to Xanax.”

The changes were perhaps most dramatic for Frank. Before medical cannabis, his multiple sclerosis had been debilitating. “There were times I wanted to give up,” he said. His symptoms would get so bad that he’d retreat to his bedroom where he could cry without disturbing his children.

Things were better now. Still, as an older patient, Frank felt guarded. His daughter had noticed how much he’d improved, he said. But he couldn’t risk telling her about CBD oil, so he just called it “Daddy’s medicine.”

CBD-only: An experiment failed

In most of America’s 29 medical marijuana states, cannabis is easily purchased in dispensaries. But three years into the CBD-only experiment, it remains extremely difficult for Southern parents and patients to obtain any kind of cannabis-based medicine, no matter how low the THC content. They must rely on an underground network of fellow patients, parents and sympathetic helpers.

At worst, patients find charlatans peddling fake medicine. At best, they risk arrest by smuggling CBD oil across state lines.

Obtaining CBD oil in the South remains such a challenge that patients and parents have formed an underground network of providers, mentors, caregivers and supporters. Operating in-person or through private Facebook groups, they help each other find good producers and steer clear of bad ones. Though CBD-only laws were supposed to make the medicine legal and more easily obtained, in fact the laws have only spurred the formation of clandestine networks and local cannabis medicine buyers clubs.

So far, there are no reports of patients getting busted for violating a CBD-only law. It’s unclear if that reflects the caution of patients and parents, or if there’s an unspoken law enforcement policy to leave CBD patients alone.

Marijuana stigma remains so powerful in the South that even a police chief didn't want to discuss the CBD-only law.

Perhaps, as Mike suggested, local police are leaving enforcement of these laws to superior agencies, like the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. During my research, I heard about an Alabama police chief who was, some parents said, sympathetic to their concerns. When I contacted the chief and ask him for his opinion on Leni’s Law, he declined an interview. “I’m just not comfortable (possibly) being viewed as an advocate of something currently deemed illegal in the State of Alabama,” he wrote me in an email. Of course, Leni’s Law is actually not illegal in Alabama—the name itself is kind of a giveaway—but his response was telling: Marijuana stigma remains so powerful in the South that even a police chief didn’t want to discuss it.

With no arrests yet, it’s unclear how these CBD laws will play out in court. Still, most patients and parents are prepared for a fight. Mark Coleman, an Alabama father who treats his severely autistic 15-year-old girl with CBD oil, told me he keeps a copy of Leni’s Law in his car, just in case.

Like most parents, Jody Mitchell, the Alabama mother who orders CBD oil online, remains defiant. “I’ll go sit in a jail cell for a couple days,” she told me. “As long as they can’t take my son’s medicine, I’m okay.”