A regulatory vacuum has spawned a multibillion-dollar trade in intoxicating hemp-derived products
By Adam Piore Globe Staff,Updated January 31, 2024, 2:22 p.m.
It’s Catherine Dhingra’s job to worry about the youth of Wakefield.
So in late January, when the town’s prevention, outreach, and youth services manager heard from a colleague about an uptick in kids showing up to school so high they were hallucinating, she immediately wondered if a potentially dangerous intoxicant called delta-8 that is readily available was behind the incidents.
“People have been seeing delta-8 sold in local vape shops,” she said. “Throughout our region, youth are talking about it.”
Although she and others didn’t know the exact intoxicants involved, she had learned enough about delta-8 on her own that she sent an email to a group of concerned volunteers, colleagues, and other health allies calling attention to its risks and easy availability for teenagers. She also urged regional tobacco control coordinator Maureen Buzby to redouble efforts to persuade vape shops, convenience stores, and other retailers to remove delta-8 and related products from their shelves.
Delta-8 is among a class of intoxicants derived from the hemp plant that are thriving in a legal grey area.Although Massachusetts has declared the sale of such products illegal, it’s left enforcement to local officials, who say they have neither the authority nor resources to force retailers to stop selling them.
“Your regulation is only as good as your ability to enforce it,” said Cheryl Sbarra, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards. “Most don’t have the resources to enforce the food code against these products that are just multiplying and multiplying.”
Delta-8 and other hemp-derived intoxicants are often sold without age verification, thanks to a regulatory vacuum created in 2018 when Congress passed legislation intended to encourage farmers to cultivate hemp for industrial and commercial uses. Hemp is the same species of plant as marijuana but has low concentrations of the psychoactive compound that induces its high.
Soon after passage of the law, scientific papers from the 1940s began circulating online, detailing a simple chemical process that converts CBD, plentiful in hemp and not intoxicating, into a psychoactive compound called delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Since then, slickly packaged food and vape products containing delta-8, delta-9, and an alphabet soup of other hemp-derived intoxicantshave flooded gas stations, convenience stores, vape shops, and supermarkets, spawning a gargantuan industry that some federal officials estimate now exceeds $24 billion.
One company exploiting the regulatory vacuum is Primabee Premium CBD in Chatham. Its products include “PrimaBuzz” gummies, which contain delta-9 and offer customers “a THC ‘chill buzz’ without going to a dispensary and paying exorbitant prices and taxes,” according to the company’s website. The gummies are available online and at stores on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket.
Delta-9 is the same naturally occurring compound that induces the high caused by marijuana and is present in low concentrations in hemp.
Primabee founder Paul Borde said he decided against selling the product in dispensaries after a discussion withthe state’s Cannabis Control Commission.
“They had all these regulations that frankly just didn’t make sense the way they were written,” Borde said. He said his lawyer assured him his products are legal because the delta-9 is derived from hemp plants rather than marijuana.
JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF
In recent months, Sbarra said she’s been inundated with calls from her members seeking advice on how to deal with the deluge of hemp derived intoxicants. (Borde said he does not sell his product in gas stations or vape shops but in higher end outlets).
“We haven’t been collecting data on this because it’s new,” Sbarra said. “But we’ve heard that kids are passing out all over the place. They can get them easily anywhere they go. It’s just spreading like wildfire.”
In her email alert about delta-8 to members of the local group focused on reducing high-risk youth behaviors, Dhingra warned that “students found under the influence can demonstrate signs of confusion, anxiety, fast heart rate, hallucinations or psychosis, vomiting.”
Critics say many of the edibles come in packaging that mimics well-known consumer brands and seems designed to appeal to children. Others warn they may be dangerous.
“Some of these products have up to 30 chemicalcontaminants that are not found in nature,” said Chris Hudalla, a chemist who runs the Milford-based marijuana testing company ProVerde Laboratories, and has tested thousands of hemp-derived compounds in recent years.
“If you were walking down the street and you saw a pharmaceutical-style capsule laying in the gutter, would you pick it up and consume it?” Hudalla said. “We have not studied these for toxicity.”
Hudalla is consulting on cases in Kentucky where multiple teenagers were hospitalized and one almost died after consuming hemp-derived intoxicants.
In recent months, numerous states have passed new laws to snuff out the trade. Connecticut now requires cannabis-operator licenses to sell hemp-derived products and has conducted spot checks and sued retailers that fail to comply.
But in Massachusetts, Sbarra and other local officials say that despite their entreaties for help, the state has left enforcement to them. The Massachusetts agriculture department issued a letter in 2022 clarifying such products are illegal. The state public health department has issued guidance suggesting any food products containing CBD or other components derived from hemp plants violate the law.
The state’s Cannabis Control Commission referred questions about the products to the agriculture department, which said it does not regulate retail sales and, in turn, referred questions to DPH. A public health spokesperson said local boards of health are responsible for enforcing regulations at retail food establishments.
As many as 20 municipalities have passed local regulations banning the sale of hemp-derived intoxicants, allowing them to issue fines. But Sbarra said many towns are too overwhelmed to handle the onslaught.
While unhappy with the situation, Sbarra said she is nonetheless distributing the state letter to members who call to seek advice and suggesting they show it to retailers. It’s better, she said, than nothing.
Buzby, the tobacco program control coordinator for Wakefield and neighboring communities, said the tactic sometimes works.
“Anytime I see a delta-8 product, I just give [the letter] to the owner or the manager and say, ‘Oh gee, maybe you didn’t realize, I think these are not allowed’” under state rules, she said. “Many seem to be self-enforcing.”
Jesse Pitts, who owns a licensed cannabis company in Wareham, said some law firms representing cannabis growers have begun advising clients to respond to the unregulated competition by considering a “dual path”: produce hemp-derived products that can be sold for less until the loopholes are closed, while maintaining their regulated cannabis businesses.
Pitts spent years getting his firm, Trade Roots, licensed and has to comply with onerous regulations, including rigorous record keeping and quality control. There are no such rules for makers of hemp-derived products, he said, nor do they come with age restrictions or the 10.75 percent cannabis tax his customers pay.
“They can just do what they want because there’s no enforcement on this,” Pitts said.
Lobbyists for the cannabis industry say the Massachusetts situation is not unusual.
“Declaring that they’re not legal and then hoping that they’ll go away is not a viable solution,” Chris Lindsay, director of state advocacy and public policy for the American Trade Association for Cannabis. “The problem is that the marketplace has gotten simply overwhelmed with their availability, and there’s enough confusion around these products that it’s created a real challenge for law enforcement.”
Lindsey and others are lobbying Congress to close the loopholes in the 2018 hemp law. But he said Massachusetts also needs a “regulatory framework” and licensing system similar to that used for marijuana, with testing standards, age limits, and fees that could be used to fund enforcement.