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House speaker blames health department for illegal hemp products


House speaker blames health department for illegal hemp products

Mar 07, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Wesley Muller
House speaker blames health department for illegal hemp products
Hemp gummies purchased at a smoke shop in East Baton Rouge Parish on March 5, 2023, are currently in a legal gray area because they contain a total of 30 milligrams of THC per package. (Photo credit: Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

One of Louisiana’s top lawmakers is sparring with state health officials, blaming them for confusion that has led to the legalization of hemp products that can get people high. The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) has offered a proposal to address the matter, but some question whether it is actually necessary.

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said the health department has botched implementation of the legislation he championed to create the state’s consumable hemp industry. The controversy involves over-the-counter products that contain delta-9 THC, a type of psychoactive compound found in cannabis. 

As one of the fastest growing plants on earth, hemp is mostly used for industrial and commercial goods such as paper, rope, textiles, paint, clothing, biodegradable plastics, insulation, animal feed and biofuel. In recent years, consumable hemp and its byproduct cannabidiol (CBD) oil have become popular natural remedies for a variety of ailments.

Louisiana’s consumable hemp industry includes growers, manufacturers and retailers of various hemp products, each of which must get approval from the health department before it can sell to the public. It’s an industry that has grown very quickly and created a new group of wealthy business owners.

Lawmakers on the House Health and Welfare Committee heard from some business owners Wednesday who admitted to making millions in revenue from hemp and are now worried the state will pull their products from the shelves.

The saga began when John Williams, a major beer industry lobbyist, sent out a mass email to legislators in November with an alarming subject line: “Recreational THC is now legal in Louisiana.” Williams later admitted to The Advocate he was opposed to the legislation that created the hemp industry.

When Schexnayder, a Republican, pushed his 2022 hemp bill, he assured fellow conservatives it would not legalize recreational products that can get people high, according to The Advocate. However, small vape stores and head shops across the state now carry a variety of cheap, over-the-counter cannabis products with more than enough THC to cause intoxication.

Williams’ email set a series of events in motion.

Schexnayder called on the health department to explain why it approved products that can get people high, and the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control sent out a memo vowing to remove any illegal products from retail sites.

LDH officials have acknowledged the agency mistakenly approved about 230 products it shouldn’t have, specifically vape cartridges that some manufacturers disguised as CBD tinctures.

Placing blame

Lawmakers scheduled Wednesday’s meeting specifically to review a proposed LDH emergency rule to rectify the issue that could remove many of the products the agency previously approved. Health department lawyer Steve Russo read over the rule at the start of the hearing, but minimal time after that was spent scrutinizing the actual language in the proposal. 

The House speaker repeatedly bashed the health department and accused LDH officials of putting small businesses in jeopardy by misinterpreting his legislation. He said health officials mistakenly approved not 230 but nearly 400 illegal products, claiming his legislation did not allow for any hemp product with more than 8 milligrams of THC. However, studies have found even that amount can cause intoxication.

Roughly a dozen hemp business owners attended the meeting to explain how the proposed emergency rule might cost them money. Some blamed the state health department and thanked Schexnayder for staying in contact with them throughout the upheaval. Monroe hemp shop owner Jason Garsee accused LDH of “knocking the kneecaps off of every entrepreneur in the state.”

Others, citing U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, said there is no need for an emergency rule because the effects of THC are hardly a threat to public health compared with the 140,000 people who die each year from alcohol consumption.

But suggestions that anything other than the health department might be to blame — such as the speaker’s legislation — were met with quick rebuttal. When Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, asked if the LDH proposal would fix parts of the legislation that were “a little loose ended,” Schexnayder took issue with Miller’s characterization.

“The legislation was not loose ended,” the speaker said. “The legislation was right where it needed to be … It wasn’t meant for [LDH] to go back and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to take this gummy and we’re going to divide it into six pieces and sell it with 100 milligrams in it.’ None of that was ever on the table.”

Schexnayder’s retort prompted Miller to backpedal on his comment and assure that he meant “no disrespect to the bill, Mr. Speaker.”

Schexnayder also criticized the press for scrutinizing his legislation and suggested there were ulterior motives behind such coverage.

“The bill has nothing to do with it,” Schexnayder said. “It was LDH’s fault from the beginning. They admitted it at the table. But yet in order to sell a news piece or to get likes on Facebook or to get likes on Twitter, that’s what they do.”

What’s in the law?

Miller’s initial characterization that Schexnayder’s bill was “a little loose ended” referred to language in the legislation that doesn’t exactly square with what Schexnayder said he intended, which was to prohibit products with multiple servings of 8 milligrams of THC.

According to the legislation, “The total THC in a product shall not exceed eight milligrams per serving.” Many manufacturers, as well as LDH officials, read that to mean each individual serving is limited to 8 milligrams. The legislation didn’t limit the number of servings a product can have.

Marksville hemp shop owner Rashad Hamideh testified that not one person at the previous committee meeting bothered to read the definition of “serving” within Schexnayder’s legislation.

As Hamideh pointed out, the legislation states: “‘Serving’ means the total amount of individual units or amount of liquid of a product recommended by the manufacturer to be consumed at a single time.”

Blaine Jennings, who owns Virgin Hemp Farms in Lafayette, pointed out Schexnayder’s bill, which became Louisiana law in August, gives the manufacturers some leeway with the number of servings in a product.

“While this is a huge issue at hand, it is in the law that we can do this,” Jennings said.

The law also requires that servings be clearly identified through one of two means: the packaging contains a measuring device that measures single servings, or the product clearly enables a consumer to determine when a single serving has been consumed.

Hamideh and other business owners testified they spent massive amounts of money making sure gummies, tablets and other products were scored or divided in a way that made them easily breakable into 8 milligram servings.

Another provision in the speaker’s law says that products must “clearly state the amount of THC per serving, serving size and servings per package.”

Alysha Hickman, a St. Tammany Parish hemp products manufacturer, told lawmakers her company invested in a new hemp gummy containing two servings for a total of 10 milligrams of THC. She said LDH approved the gummy in September, and she now worries she will be stuck with a product she can no longer sell. When asked, she admitted to lawmakers that some people could get high off her gummies.

Schexnayder said such products should never have been approved, though it’s unclear exactly how LDH’s proposed emergency rule will fix the problem. LDH spokesperson Kevin Litten said the proposal has not yet been released.

In trying to explain the proposal, Russo gave an example of a canned beverage containing 16 milligrams of THC and labeled as two servings.

“Currently that would be a legal product or in the gray area,” Russo said. “But this [rule] would make it crystal clear that that beverage — that single can — can only have one serving.”

Nothing in Schexnayder’s law explicitly says hemp products cannot have multiple servings or that the sum of a product’s servings must not exceed 8 milligrams of THC. The speaker did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Even if the state prohibits hemp gummies that have more than 8 milligrams of THC, the speaker’s law does not cap the number of products a person can buy, so people will still be able to access greater amounts of THC by simply buying more gummies.

Hamideh told lawmakers there is no need for an emergency rule, saying there was nothing wrong with the legislation or LDH’s initial rules. He said LDH should just pull products that don’t have measuring devices or easily divisible servings.

Most of the other business owners expressed similar opinions and said their products are not harming anyone. One proprietor compared current outcries from the beer lobby with the lobbying pressure that initially banned hemp nearly a century ago because it competed with cotton and timber.

The committee deferred taking any action on the rule.

Committee member Rep. Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner, said he is not overly concerned about the situation.

“This is not uncommon, especially in an industry that has evolved and taken off like this industry has in the state,” Stagni said. “This is not adversarial. This is the process.”