Field of hemp. Credit: René Nijs via Flicker
Hemp entrepreneurs from all parts of Florida have made the trek twice to Tallahassee this month to testify against a legislative proposal that they say poses an existential threat to their livelihoods.
At the same time, states around the country have been enacting regulations regarding intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids, and that’s become a conundrum for all sides of the hemp debate.
Florida’s hemp program went into effect in 2019, shortly after the passage of the 2018 farm bill, which made hemp production and distribution legal under federal law and allowed states to create hemp programs. The farm bill defined hemp as the cannabis plant with one key difference: hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of THC, the compound in the plant associated with getting you high.
The most lucrative part of the hemp industry has involved the production of biomass that contains cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound believed to treat health conditions like anxiety, stress, anxiety and inflation.
But a new measure introduced in the Florida House this spring (HB 1475) would limit the amount of THC in hemp products to not exceed 5 milligrams per serving or 50 milligrams per package and prohibit those products to anyone under the age of 21. The Senate version calls for such products not to exceed 0.5 milligrams per serving, or just 2 milligrams per package.
Vendors and patients say those levels are far too low and would make hemp products like gummies, CBD pre-rolls and oils and tinctures completely ineffective.
“I have lupus and tremors and it’s one of the reasons why I got into this business, so that I could make sure that the medicine that I received was the best and top quality,” says Shaina Ortiz, the CEO of Siesta G based in eastern Hillsborough County.
“I operate on about 1,000 milligrams a day of hemp-derivative products. All different spectrums of that hemp derived products. This bill essentially would knock out any form of hemp, CBD’s, HHC’s (hexahydrocannabinol) CBN (cannabinol). The whole entire plant.”
Matt Schwarmann, the vice president of Outpost Brands, a Daytona Beach hemp manufacturer with 142 employees, says the current packaging limits would eliminate “virtually every hemp product” on the market.
“Every vape and cartridge would all be eliminated, and when you have gummies of such small efficacy doses, less than 5 milligrams – that’s not enough for the majority of people who are using it strictly as therapeutic uses,” he says.
Their fears are not unfounded, says Nikki Fried, now chair of the Florida Democratic Party.
“The exact intent of this bill is to eliminate 189,000 jobs and 10,000 small businesses,” the former state Agriculture Commissioner told the Phoenix.
What about Delta-8?
Overall, the bill calls for hemp products to be illegal for anyone under 21 years of age; it requires packaging, labeling and testing requirements for hemp-based products; it requires that hemp products be sold in a container that is “not attractive to children” and is designed to minimize exposure to light and high temperatures; and puts limits on doses and on the packages.
It’s that last provision which is raising serious concerns.
One of the main products that legislators want to regulate is what is known as Delta-8, which is legal and soared in popularity in 2020 at hemp and CBD stores around the country.
As mentioned earlier, hemp and marijuana come from the same species of plant, but hemp can’t contain more than 0.3 percent THC – the main psychoactive ingredient that provides the “high” when ingesting cannabis, per the 2018 U.S. farm bill. But Delta-8 also has psychoactive and intoxicating effects, says the FDA, though those who have consumed it say that it provides a lighter and more relaxed feeling and is ideal for those who don’t want to get high from medical cannabis.
Nevertheless more than twenty states have banned or restricted Delta-8 use in the past two years.
“Some will say that this bill will end the hemp industry,” Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson said. He was at a press conference in the Department of Agriculture’s office in the Capitol last week next to a display of photos of high-THC products that had been discovered in convenience stores by agriculture inspectors.
“Let me be clear – the current wild, wild west situation, selling anything to anybody, is going to end. We will close the loopholes in state law being exploited to sell euphoric recreational cannabis products without restrictions,” Simpson said.
The black market
Carlos Hermida is the owner and manager of Chillum Glass Gallery and Hemp Dispensary that’s based in the heart of Ybor City in Tampa.
Like many of the hemp vendors who have made their way to the state capital in the past two weeks, he says he supports the restrictions to selling hemp products only to people 21 and older as well as packaging requirements in the bill. But he says that the limits on THC in hemp products will hurt patients, especially those who don’t desire to use medical cannabis or can’t afford to purchase their products, thus moving them to the black market.
Hermida says that his mother recently took half of a 12-milligram gummy to help her get through the process of chemotherapy treatments she’s enduring to treat her lymphoma diagnosis.
“It was the only thing that could get her to sleep at night and that is a small dose taken by a woman in her 70s just to help her sleep,” he recounts. “That would be outlawed by this bill.”
“I want to call this bill the ‘stay in your lane’ bill,” says Will Robinson, Jr., the bill sponsor in the House. He represents part of Manatee County. “You have medical marijuana in one lane and you have hemp in another lane. And the lanes have gotten mixed together and this bill simply realigns those lanes into two clear lanes.”
But Holly Bell, the state’s first (and only) director of cannabis who served in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) from 2019 to 2022, says that the 22 current medical marijuana companies that are licensed in the state have been allowed to drive in the hemp lane for years because they’ve always been able to offer hemp products, while the reverse isn’t true.
“Do they own hemp companies? Yes,” she says. “I helped and watched many of them start. So they’re driving in our lane, but we can’t get in theirs?”
Robinson and Lakeland Republican Colleen Burton, the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill (SB 1676), have both met up with hemp vendors since they introduced their legislation, and those conversations appear to have resulted in some tangible results.
Robinson moved this week to increase the amount of milligrams in the products to 5 milligrams per serving or 50 milligrams per package. (His initial House bill called for regulating the levels of THC in hemp products to less than 2 milligrams per package and less than .5 milligrams per dose.)
But it comes after Burton acknowledged at the bill’s first committee meeting in the Senate that she had yet to meet with anyone from the industry, which raised concerns from some in the hemp industry.
“This is an industry in the state of Florida where you have more than 100,000 jobs, more than $15 billion in economic activity, and lawmakers wrote a bill that would wipe the industry out without talking to one person in the industry? How do you write a bill that destroys 100,000 families, without talking to one person in the industry?” asks Matt Schwarmann, the vice president at the hemp manufacturer.
“It gives an unfair competitive industry advantage to the medical marijuana licensees,” adds Bell, who now works as the vice president of regulatory affairs for Flora Growth, an international cannabis company. She says that the current legislative proposal now moving through the process is similar to the regulations on hemp products that lobbyists with Curaleaf, one of the state’s biggest medical marijuana companies, were pressing on the Agriculture Department to advocate for two years ago. She was referencing House and Senate bills related to regulating hemp products.
Smoke and mirrors
Fried calls the emphasis on safety in the bill as “smoke and mirrors” and adds that if that was the main concern of lawmakers, they could change the age and packaging requirements and increase product testing.
But the Legislature does seem determined to join up with the other states to regulate hemp and set per serving limits. (A bipartisan proposal to reform Delta-8 as part of a larger cannabis bill failed to advance in the 2022 legislative session). That’s been viewed as a reaction to the lack of the federal government’s oversight when it comes to THC products.
“Hemp was the big new thing in the previous farm bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a strong advocate for the 2018 federal legislation, said last month, according to The Hill. “So far, it’s not worked out like we had hoped. It’s had a lot of challenges related to the difficulty of getting guidance out of the Food and Drug Administration.”
As House Rep. Robinson noted this week, states have set their own hemp limits in recent years.
Connecticut’s edible hemp products are limited to 5 milligrams of THC per serving in 2021, according to that state’s website which is now what Robinson’s bill is calling for.
Louisiana says servings cannot exceed 8 milligram per serving, according to that state’s health department’s website. According to a 2021 report from Marijuana Venture, most states mandate a maximum size of 5-10 milligrams per serving size of THC and a per-package limit of 50-100 milligrams. But some states are much higher, in per-package limits, such as Illinois (500 milligrams) and Montana (800 milligrams.)
During the session, some hemp industry officials testified in committees saying that they claim that the legislation is being pushed by Trulieve, the Tallahassee-based medical marijuana company that possesses a quarter of the medical marijuana dispensaries in the state and is one of the largest cannabis companies in the country.
Nonsense, say Trulieve officials.
“Reports of Trulieve’s involvement in this bill are false,” said spokesman Steve Vancore. “We have taken no stance on it, are not engaged, or otherwise involved.”
The concerns from the public do seem to be registering.
At the House Agriculture, Conservation and Resiliency Subcommittee week this past Monday, Palm Beach House Republican Rick Roth said that he did not want to see the hemp industry go dark.
“I think there’s a dangerous precedent – it’s called a medical marijuana monopoly,” Roth said. “We don’t want that. We want the hemp industry to be able to provide good service to people. We do not want it all to go the black market.”
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