There is a new and thriving market for hemp products in North Carolina and across the country; you’ve probably noticed the convenient store shelves full of CBD gummies, smokable hemp flower, vape pens, and more. But who’s making them, and by what standards, is often an open question in this new free-for-all economy.

The nascent industry may be showing signs of maturing, however. A pharmaceutical-grade hemp products manufacturing facility located in Nash County has been growing its operational capacity since it first opened in 2019 with a primary focus on offering premium quality. Their mission is to create safe and consistent standards for consumers that range from elderly grandmas taking gummies to help them sleep; to spastic dogs being served bacon-flavored CBD gummies for anxiety; to those interested in more recreational products, like hemp-derived ‘Delta 9.’ 

‘Southern Ease’ gummy flavors produced by Asterra Labs

At the helm of the venture is a leading state lawmaker: Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne. Set to serve as chairman of the powerful Rules Committee in the North Carolina House of Representatives, Bell recently became president of Asterra Labs, which develops, manufactures, and distributes hemp-derived products for retail, wholesale, and white-label production partnerships. The goal is to offer consumers a sure-quality alternative to potentially unsafe, inconsistent CBD/THC products in a mostly unregulated space.

While marijuana is not legal in North Carolina, its close cousin, hemp, is. Hemp contains considerably less THC (the psychoactive agent in marijuana), and consumer demand for its derivative products has been blossoming in recent years. Legalized in 2018 as part of the federal Farm Bill, North Carolina quickly followed suit in legalizing hemp products that contain less than 0.3% THC by weight, mirroring the federal limits for hemp products.

Yet, much of the industry operates under little, if any, regulation, leading to hit-or-miss product quality. Asterra Labs products, all derived from hemp, are tested by a third party to ensure quality standards are met. The company employs 12 full-time workers who use state-of-the-art equipment and third-party testing to uphold the company’s high standards. 

“This is doing it the right way,” explained Bell as he gave Carolina Journal a tour of the Nashville facility. “It is the wild, wild west when it comes to these products. It’s hit or miss because a lot of these people are making this stuff in their backyards, and the consumers don’t know what they’re getting. There is a need for a standard of quality so the consumer knows what they’re getting. That’s the call Asterra Labs is answering; a pharmaceutical-grade facility where everything is measured precisely and tested for quality.” 

As president of the company, Bell provided an inside look at the 10,000 sqft facility, from research and development, formulating and testing, to manufacturing and packaging. They take specialized orders for white-label clients, but they also have their own line of branded products sold as “Southern Ease Trading Company.” 

The line includes Delta 9 THC gummies and dog CBD calming gummies for pain relief. CBD and Delta-infused products come in many forms, such as gummies, tablets, and liquid droppers. They use innovative equipment on-site to achieve the consistency they say sets them apart from others. With hemp grown in historically agricultural eastern North Carolina and pharmaceutical scientists and technologists in the Research Triangle Park, company founders view the facility’s location in Nash County, about an hour from Raleigh, as an ideal in-between to leverage both resources. 

“The consumer will always know exactly what they’re getting,” said Bell. “This could be a major industry in North Carolina, but we also need regulation to make it happen.” 

He says regulation is needed to prioritize safety and quality rather than unregulated products that likely contain inconsistent ingredients and concentrations. Last week, the House Select Committee on Substance Abuse recommended regulating the sale and distribution of hemp-derived consumable products, as well as kratom products, which are currently widely available across North Carolina. 

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The House unanimously passed legislation last year that would provide clarity on hemp-derived products, but it awaits action from the Senate Committee on Rules and Operations.

As an advocate for doing things the right way, Bell invited his colleagues in the General Assembly to tour the facility for themselves, in addition to congressional candidates and city, county, and law enforcement officials. He thinks that doing things the right way when it comes to quality and accountability will lead to high-longevity businesses that leverage North Carolina’s strengths, from farmers and scientists to retail workforces and consumers.

Gummy production line at Asterra Labs in Nashville, NC

Far from the incentive-laden ribbon-cutting announcements that sometimes make headlines, this venture is one example of the budding economic enterprises in North Carolina stemming from the freedom to explore new markets with relatively low barriers to entry. The shift in public perception around hemp products, combined with new professional outfits like Asterra Labs, suggests this budding industry is set to yield more and more economic impact in the Tar Heel State.