Cannabis, hemp companies fight over whether to ban or regulate intoxicating products like delta-8-THC

cannabis, hemp companies fight over whether to ban or regulate intoxicating products like delta-8-thc

Containers of cannabis flowers that include different levels of Delta-8 THC, a cannabis compound.

Intoxicating hemp products like delta-8-THC would be banned in Illinois under a proposal in Springfield — prompting hemp companies to fight for their survival.

“Big Cannabis has no interest in regulations for hemp companies like mine,” Charles Wu, CEO of Nexem hemp grower and Chi’tiva stores that sell delta-8, told the Tribune. ″What they have been pushing for is a complete ban of our industry.”

“The ban is for intoxicating hemp,” said Pam Althoff, of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, which represents licensed marijuana businesses. “Normal CBD products that have small amounts of THC are perfectly legal, and nobody’s attempting to stop their production.”

No bill had been introduced to ban hemp as of Thursday afternoon, but lobbyists were working to add the ban at the last minute to an omnibus bill that covers a wide range of changes to cannabis law, from increasing craft grower size to allowing business tax deductions.

The dispute is a consequence of the 2018 federal farm bill that legalized hemp and “all derivatives.” The law defined hemp as cannabis that has less than 0.3% delta-9-THC, the main component of pot that gets users high.

The popular byproduct of hemp at the time was nonintoxicating CBD, but a lack of federal guidelines has stunted that market. Federal lawmakers didn’t foresee that a cottage industry would spring up to create other products from hemp, like delta-8 and delta-10-THC and THCO that can get users high but are said to be milder than pot.

Smoke shops, gas stations and websites around the country have sprung up to sell the products, sometimes along with illegal delta-9-THC, often with no age restrictions, and often in candy and cookies that look like famous brands. Last month, five Chicago high school students were vomiting and were taken to hospitals after ingesting edible gummies from a nearby smoke shop.

Hemp producers counter that cannabis gummies from state-licensed shops also have been involved in the rise of hundreds of cases of accidental ingestion among children in Illinois.

Unlike state-licensed cannabis companies, which are required to test and label products for potency and purity, hemp products face no such requirements, and may be made with solvents and acid that produce heavy metals or unknown byproducts. Some hemp companies do test and label — but analyses of both hemp and cannabis products show that many labels are inaccurate.

To address that, hemp advocates have proposed a bill that would license and regulate hemp production, restrict sales to adults 21 and over, and require testing for metals, solvents, potency and purity.

Beyond the safety concerns, the dispute between cannabis companies and hemp businesses also is a fight over money. Hemp cultivators say the small group of cannabis companies licensed to grow the plant are trying to keep the market to themselves.

Hemp-derived intoxicating products, primarily delta-8-THC, have seen explosive growth in the past two years. Industry analysts the Brightfield Group recently estimated that delta-8 makes $1 billion in sales annually, and is a threat to divert cannabis users, one-third of whom had used a hemp product in the past six months.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned about adverse effects of marijuana and hemp THC products, including underage consumption and getting sick. As with cannabis, some states have banned intoxicating hemp drugs, while others regulate and tax them.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency also recently proposed changes to federal law that would ban THC products derived synthetically from hemp, saying they are illegal — though a federal judge has ruled otherwise.

Licensed cannabis companies in Illinois have raised concerns about delta-8 products. They commissioned a lab analysis of delta-8 products, from edibles to vapes to flower, at 25 stores. The analysis by LK Pure Labs consistently found high levels of delta-9-THC, often in amounts that exceeded the limits for licensed stores, and in some cases contaminants like mold and bacteria.

“On one hand you have a highly regulated industry that is strictly focused on compliance — and on the other you have stores that are calling themselves the same thing and selling products that are untested and unregulated to minors — it’s causing health and safety issues, consumer confusion, reputational damage, and it needs to stop before there are more serious injuries and fatalities,” Cresco Labs communications chief Jason Erkes wrote to the Tribune.

Representatives of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the state Cannabis Regulatory Oversight Officer, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, and state Rep. LaShawn Ford recently met with craft growers, the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition and others to discuss a variety of proposed changes to the state cannabis law, including hemp. Lawmakers have been busy with other matters like approving a state budget, but plan to finish their spring session Friday.

Both sides were scrambling Thursday to lobby lawmakers.

“This move is NOT being done to protect the public, it is to further the monopoly that Big Cannabis has in Illinois and to crush out all legal competition,” Wu wrote to the Tribune. “Since Big Cannabis is unable to ‘own’ the hemp industry, they are now trying to ban it.”

Instead of banning intoxicating hemp products, Ford called for testing, labeling and taxing them.

“More effective regulation is imperative, but I don’t think we want to hurt our economy by regulating hemp companies out of existence,” he said. “That will only fuel the ugly war on drugs, encourage crime, move consumers into the illegal market and drive thriving companies out of Illinois.”

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©2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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