States fight against chemically manufactured THC
Over the past few years, Jonny Griffis has poured millions into his legal marijuana farm in northern Michigan, which produces extracts for use in things like gummy bears and vape oils.
But now that farm – like many other licensed grows in states that have legalized marijuana – faces an existential threat: high-induction cannabis compounds coming not from the heavily regulated legal marijuana industry and taxed, but a chemical process involving less strictly regulated, lower cost. cultivated hemp.
“It’s going to make our farm obsolete,” Griffis, chief operating officer of True North Collective, testified recently before Michigan’s marijuana regulatory agency. “The $3 million or so that I’ve invested … is going to be wiped out.”
At the center of the problem is THC, the main intoxicating component of marijuana. While marijuana and hemp are the same plant – cannabis – the distinction between the two is legal and comes down to the amount of THC in the plant, specifically the amount of a type of THC called delta-9.
Hemp is defined in federal law by its low delta-9 THC content and is traditionally used for food, clothing, and industrial applications. “Rope not dope” has long been a motto for those advocating the legalization of hemp.
But ever since Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, allowing hemp to be grown nationwide under state or tribal licensing programs, there has been an unintended consequence: people exploiting what they see as a loophole. in law have taken this hemp, extracted a non-intoxicating compound called CBD, and chemically transformed it – usually by the addition of solvents and heat – into various types of altering THC.
Unlike the completely man-made and often dangerous drugs known as K2 or Spice and referred to as “synthetic marijuana,” the chemically-created THC at issue here consists of molecules found naturally in cannabis, albeit sometimes in trace amounts. It is much cheaper to chemically produce THC from hemp than to extract it from marijuana.
Because it’s derived from hemp, this THC — often in a form called delta-8 — can end up in candies, vape oils, and other products sold at gas stations, convenience stores, and online. even in states where marijuana is illegal. The Food and Drug Administration warned last year that the substances pose a risk to public health due to multiple factors, including how they are marketed and due to potential contamination during their manufacture.
At least 17 states have banned these products, but they remain available in many states, including the legal marijuana pioneer state of Washington, where sales of THC at gas stations and vape shops created from hemp provide competition to the heavily taxed, regulated and tested marijuana market. .
Virginia lawmakers this month approved a bill to strictly limit the amount of THC allowed in hemp-derived products; Governor Glenn Youngkin has not yet signed it. In Kentucky and Georgia, recent lawsuits have sought to establish that delta-8 products are legal; a Kentucky judge sided with hemp advocates on Feb. 28, allowing the products to continue to be sold as lawmakers consider a ban.
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The American Hemp Roundtable, a hemp industry association, has denounced the use of CBD extracted from hemp to create intoxicating products, saying it “damages the integrity of the hemp industry and for the 2018 Farm Bill”.
Supporters call chemically-based THC economical and environmentally friendly. Hemp can be grown in large fields outdoors, without expensive lighting systems, and can have a lower carbon footprint than marijuana.
Additionally, processors can make a more consistent product by using the chemistry to make THC from CBD, they say, and regulators shouldn’t block market innovations or pick winners and losers in the process. industry. They compare it to vanilla or synthetic caffeine added to foods and drinks.
“Most growers don’t like to hear that because they feel like it’s taking away from their market, but it’s a great product,” said Abe Fleishman of Northstar Hemp in Oregon. “It provides an opportunity for companies to increase production, on the one hand, and make a new product that is, in my opinion, cleaner than your usual THC products.”
For critics, safety is not proven; the manufacturing process may leave traces of unidentifiable compounds. The method also allows for the manufacture of lesser-known cannabis compounds whose health effects are not well understood.
Chemically produced THC is unlikely to replace the high-end dried cannabis flower favored by many connoisseurs, but it is so cheap to manufacture that it significantly undermines marijuana growers focused on the extract market and who have spent a lot of time and money adapting. to strict rules for their industry.
Griffis said he watched the price of delta-9 distillate rise from $50,000 a liter to $6,000 — and drop — as THC made from hemp flooded the market.
“This is an issue that almost every state cannabis regulator is thinking about,” said Gillian Schauer, executive director of the Cannabis Regulators Association. “This presents many challenges for protecting public health and consumer safety, as well as protecting existing state cannabis markets.”
And, Schauer said, THC chemically made from hemp is just the tip of the iceberg: it can also be made from bio-engineered yeast, so regulators will soon find themselves grappling with that. also.
In Michigan, the Marijuana Regulatory Agency is considering rules that would allow processors to convert CBD to THC with the agency’s prior written approval, which would require demonstrations of the conversion method and product testing. . They should also label their product as synthetic – a suggestion that has angered processors who note that the molecules are found in nature.
The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission has granted marijuana licensees a six-month grace period to sell intoxicating hemp-based THC products they had already acquired prior to entry into force. the ban took effect in July.
In California, hemp-derived THC products are not allowed in legal marijuana stores, but regulators are reviewing the steps needed to allow them.
Colorado and Washington, which in 2012 became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, made it clear last year that synthetic cannabinoids, including THC, are not allowed in their legal industries.
After an outcry from licensed producers who said they were undercut, Washington’s Alcohol and Cannabis Board seized more than 1,600 pounds (726 kilograms) of chemically-created THC products made by a single licensed marijuana company , Unicorn Brands. The board continued to ban them from the regulated market.
For David Postman, chairman of the board, THC made from hemp represents an industrialization of the cannabis industry that he is not sure voters wanted when they passed the legal marijuana law. of Washington, which was presented as a harm reduction measure.
“The LCB and the majority of the cannabis industry do not believe the legal market should include lab-created mind-altering THC,” Postman said. “Allowing synthetically derived THC into the state’s legal cannabis market could devastate the industry.”
Vicki Christophersen, a lobbyist for the Washington industry group CannaBusiness Association, says the council’s approach stifles innovation in a way that will make it difficult for Washington to compete nationally, should the federal marijuana ban be lifted.
“The collaborations that are happening between the hemp industry and the adult-use cannabis industry are not only inevitable, they are important,” she said. “We need to look at what’s going to move Washington’s industry forward alongside all the other competing states that are moving at a much higher speed than us.”
By GENE JOHNSON Associated Press