Into the weeds as hemp concerns clash

Hemp legalization was not intended to get people high, said a lawmaker whose proposal to close loopholes in state cannabis code was approved this winter by the legislature, to the dismay of hemp businesses in Southwest Virginia.

In response to a proliferation of Delta 8 THC products for sale in stores across Virginia, Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, this year carried a bill alongside Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, to redefine legal distinctions between the non-intoxicating hemp plant and its mind-altering sibling, the cannabis plant.

“There are lots of uses for hemp… I’m glad we’re able to grow it,” Hanger said. “But it seems like the traditional uses that we were hoping for did not come about as quickly as some would have hoped.”

Hemp plant fibers have wide potential for use in a variety of industries, from applications in textiles to development of bioplastics. However, flowers from hemp plants can be processed to synthesize high concentrations of Delta 8 THC and other counterparts the THC chemical, used in consumable products like vape pens and gummies.

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“Hemp was intended to be something totally different: structural, bedding, clothing, those types of things,” Hanger said. “Those markets are slow to develop.”

Delta 8 THC, thus far unregulated by state or federal law, can cause psychoactive side effects in users, similar to effects of the chief high-inducing ingredient in cannabis, Delta 9 THC. Hanger’s Senate Bill 591, approved by the Virginia General Assembly and awaiting the governor’s signature, sets out to tighten regulations by altering the state’s definition of cannabis.

“There are some people who have products out there on the market in Virginia that would be banned under this legislation, unless they sell as a licensed vendor in a more regulated market,” Hanger said. “Right now, that’s not the case.”

While demand for hemp rope is slow to emerge, consumers seem keen on Delta 8 THC and other related hemp products. Prevalence of such products in convenience stores and headshops has increased since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp and its byproducts nationwide.

“There is a lot of money to be made. I’m not opposed to people making money,” Hanger said. “But I’m concerned about the safety of people when there’s a proliferation of products out there that you can inadvertently get high from.”

At least 17 other states have banned such products, as other states continue to contemplate legal adjustments.

For Eric Bissey, owner of Nice Dreams gift shop in Blacksburg, hemp products are a significant source of his revenue. Hanger’s bill, if signed into law, would severely limit sales at Nice Dreams, Bissey said.

“Probably 40% of my business right now is selling CBD products that are protected under the Farm Bill,” Bissey said. “I have veterans that come in to purchase items… people that have sleep issues… people with anxiety that come in… There’s just so many different uses.”

He said use of hemp-derived THC products have been misrepresented by lawmakers, and proposed changes will only bolster the illicit market that Virginia is trying to convert into a taxable cannabis industry.

“All this bill is going to do is cause people to go back to the black market, which is where they got their product before,” Bissey said. “My product is safe. It’s been tested. All you have to do is scan the QR code, and it shows you the independent lab results of exactly what is in the product.”

Given that cannabis consumption was legalized in Virginia last year, it seems counterintuitive to further restrict hemp, he said.

“Yes, people are doing it recreationally,” Bissey said. “It shouldn’t matter, because the state has made it legal.”

Bissey said legislators are regulating Delta 8 THC and other hemp THC derivatives because the state wants control over who makes money from the hemp and cannabis markets. He said it’s a money-grab.

“Right now this is in direct competition with them having their monopoly, so they’re just going to eliminate it,” Bissey said. “They’re eliminating their competition which is unregulated, so that they can control everything else through regulation.”

For growers of hemp, SB 591 further complicates cultivation, said Jonathan Zinski, founder of Rezin Botanicals in Gladys, south of Lynchburg.

“I see the intent, but it’s really hurting a lot of Virginia business owners,” Zinski said of HB 591. “We definitely do need more protection. I agree with a lot of the talking points. But I think this is too severe, and it’s hurting hemp farmers.”

The bill specifies that hemp plants can only have a fraction of a percent of any derivative of THC. Problematically, Zinski said, Delta 8 THC and other such derivatives naturally occur during the hemp plant’s life cycle.

“For a hemp farmer trying to be compliant, they’re going to have to start testing for all these other isomers of THC, which do occur naturally in the plant,” Zinski said, adding that “industrial hemp and marijuana are the exact same plant,” except for the methods used to grow them.

In addition to growing hemp, Zinski said he is working to start a nonprofit that focuses on cannabis education, responsible use, and riddance of cultural stigma surrounding the plant.

“Some of this is almost like prohibitionist rhetoric,” Zinski said of current legislation. “We do need more protections, but again, it’s hurting honest people, and it’s not helping Virginians.”

Given the stigma and novelty surrounding cannabis legalization, it is challenging to educate lawmakers, he said.

“The way they’re doing it, we need precision accuracy with this issue,” Zinski said of lawmakers. “They’re shooting a shotgun… at a target that’s got a whole bunch of innocent hemp farmers standing behind it.”

Hanger said the hemp and cannabis industry are indeed areas of education for him and others. He said lawmaking sometimes causes unintended impacts, and he encouraged people to reach out with their concerns.

“I’m discussing with some of the processors that are out there, and the retailers, some potential amendments that we might entertain,” Hanger said. “If there are amendments that we need… then I’m all for that.”

With the General Assembly set to reconvene its 2022 lawmaking session in late April, there remains opportunity for Hanger to work with the office of Gov. Glenn Youngkin on amending SB 591 before it is signed into law.

“Or, if the opponents of the legislation are totally successful, they might convince him to veto the bill, but I would hope we don’t go there,” Hanger said. “We have some time to work on it… probably about a month that we can work on this to get it right, if there is a right to it. I’m not sure. We kind of stirred a hornet’s nest.”

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