By GENE JOHNSON – Associated Press
In recent years, Jonny Griffis has invested millions of dollars in his legal marijuana farm in northern Michigan, which produces extracts used in things like gummy bears and vape oils.
But now this farm – like many other licensed grows in states that have legalized marijuana – faces an existential threat: high-inducing cannabis compounds derived not from the heavily regulated and taxed legal marijuana industry, but from a chemical process that is little regulated and cheap is grown hemp.
“It’s going to make our farm obsolete,” Griffis, True North Collective’s chief operating officer, recently testified before Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency. “The roughly $3 million I invested…will be wiped out.”
At the heart 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 depends on the amount of THC in the plant, specifically the amount of a type of THC called delta-9.
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Defined in federal law by its low delta-9 THC content, hemp has traditionally been used for food, clothing, and industrial applications. “Rope not dope” has long been a motto for those campaigning for the legalization of hemp.
But since Congress passed the Farm Bill in 2018, authorizing the cultivation of hemp nationwide, there has been an unforeseen consequence: people taking advantage of what they see as a loophole in the law have been taking this hemp, extracting a non-intoxicating compound called CBD and chemically alters it—generally through the addition of solvents and heat—into various types of impairing THC.
Unlike the entirely man-made, often dangerous drugs known as K2 or Spice, which are called “synthetic marijuana,” the chemically-produced THC we’re talking about is made up of molecules that occur naturally, albeit sometimes, in cannabis in infinitesimally small 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 candy, vape oils, and other products sold at gas stations, convenience stores, and online, even in states where marijuana is illegal is illegal. The Food and Drug Administration warned last year that the substances pose a public health risk due to several factors, including how they are marketed and possible contamination during manufacturing.
At least 17 states have banned such products, but they are still available in many, including pioneering legal marijuana state Washington, where the sale of hemp-derived THC at gas stations and vape shops rivals the heavily taxed, regulated and tested marijuana market .
The Virginia legislature this month passed a bill to severely 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 attempted to establish that Delta-8 products are legal; A Kentucky judge there sided with the hemp advocates on Feb. 28, allowing the products to continue to be sold while lawmakers consider banning them.
The US Hemp Roundtable, a hemp industry association, has denounced the use of hemp-extracted CBD to manufacture intoxicating products, saying it “undermines the integrity of the hemp industry and the intent of the 2018 Farm Bill.”
Proponents call chemically derived THC economical and environmentally friendly. Hemp can be grown in huge 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 chemistry to make THC from CBD, they say, and regulators shouldn’t stand in the way of market innovation or picking winners and losers in the industry. They compare it to synthetically produced vanilla or caffeine added to food and drinks.
“Most growers don’t like to hear that because they feel like it’s killing their market, but it’s a great product,” said Abe Fleishman of Northstar Hemp in Oregon. “Firstly, it offers companies the opportunity to scale up production and create a new product that I think is cleaner than your regular THC products.”
For critics, safety is unproven; The manufacturing process may leave traces of unidentifiable compounds. The method also allows for the production of lesser-known cannabis compounds whose health effects are not well understood.
Chemically produced THC is unlikely to displace the premium dried cannabis flower favored by many connoisseurs, but it is so cheap to produce that extract market-focused marijuana growers who have invested significant time and money in adapting it have drastically used it undercuts too strict rules for their industry.
Griffis said he’s seen the price of Delta-9 distillate drop from $50,000 a liter to $6,000 — falling — as hemp-derived THC floods the market.
“It’s an issue that almost every state cannabis regulator is thinking about,” said Gillian Schauer, executive director of the Cannabis Regulators Association. “It poses many challenges to protecting public health and consumer safety, as well as protecting existing government cannabis markets.”
And, Schauer says, chemically engineered THC from hemp is just the tip of the iceberg: It can also be made from bioengineered yeast, so regulators will soon be struggling with that, too.
In Michigan, the Marijuana Regulatory Agency is considering rules that would allow processors to convert CBD to THC with prior written agency approval, which would require demonstrations of the conversion method and product testing. They would also have to label their product as synthetic — a suggestion that has angered processors who find the molecules occur naturally.
Oregon’s Liquor and Cannabis Commission gave marijuana licensees a six-month grace period to sell intoxicating THC-derived hemp products they had already purchased before a ban goes into effect in July.
In California, hemp-derived THC products aren’t allowed in legal marijuana stores, but regulators are studying the steps necessary to allow them.
Colorado and Washington, which became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, made it clear last year that synthetically derived cannabinoids, including THC, are not allowed in their legal industries.
After an uproar from licensed growers who said they were undercutting, Washington’s Liquor and Cannabis Board seized more than 1,600 pounds (726 kilograms) of chemically engineered THC products made by a single licensed marijuana company, Unicorn Brands. The board then banned them from the regulated market.
For David Postman, the CEO, THC-derived from hemp represents an industrialization of the cannabis industry that he’s not sure voters wanted when they passed Washington’s legal marijuana law, which was billed as a harm reduction measure.
“The LCB and the majority of the cannabis industry disagree that the legal market should contain mind-altering lab-produced THC,” Postman said. “Allowing synthetically derived THC into the state’s legal cannabis market could devastate the industry.”
Vicki Christophersen, a lobbyist for industry group Washington CannaBusiness Association, argues that the board’s approach stifles innovation in a way that will make it harder for Washington to compete nationally if the federal marijuana ban is ever lifted.
“Collaboration between the hemp industry and the adult cannabis industry is not only inevitable but important,” she said. “We need to look at what Washington’s industry is going to move along with all the other competing states that are moving much faster than we are.”
Johnson reported from Seattle.
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