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Lawmakers punt on issue of intoxicating hemp products


Lawmakers punt on issue of intoxicating hemp products

Jun 12, 2024 | 11:03 am ET
By Bhaamati Borkhetaria
Lawmakers punt on issue of intoxicating hemp products
Photo courtesy of CommonWealth

Lawmakers stressed the urgency of dealing with the issue of intoxicating hemp-based products but said that they’re unlikely to do anything before the next legislative session begins next year.

The Legislature’s Joint Committees on Agriculture and Cannabis Policy together held an oversight hearing on Tuesday to discuss hemp-based products that contain the same active ingredient as cannabis products but are not regulated in the same way. These products have been showing up in convenience stores, gas stations, liquor stores, and smoke shops. 

Rep. Paul Schmid, chair of the agriculture committee, said he hoped the legislature could do something about intoxicating hemp products in the next session, which doesn’t start until next year. The formal sessions for this year are set to end July 31.

“We hope that we can work with those who testified today to solve this issue, but we realize that a well-thought-out solution will require continued conversations into the next session and beyond,” Schmid said in a statement after the hearing. “As was highlighted in the hearing, this is a matter that involves significant portions of local, state, and federal law, whose concerns must all be satisfied.”

Schmid, a Westport Democrat, won’t be among the legislators working on the issue in the next session. He announced in February he was not seeking another two-year term.

A 2018 federal law removed hemp from the definition of marijuana and subsequently, an entire industry has popped up to sell hemp products which are marketed very similarly to cannabis products. Hemp-based products are not subject to the strict regulations around testing, packaging, labeling, taxation, and age restrictions that the Cannabis Control Commission enforces on cannabis products. 

The oversight hearing was held because there is a lack of clarity on who is responsible for regulating and enforcing regulations on the intoxicating hemp-based products. Different state agencies – including the Department of Public Health (DPH), the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), and the Cannabis Control Commission – provided statements at the hearing about their agencies’ interactions with these products.

“We have a situation where intoxicating hemp products are being produced probably from hemp that isn’t grown in Massachusetts, in labs that have no supervision, being put into packages that have no age requirements and they’re competing with our lawful cannabis retailers,” Schmid said.

DPH and MDAR have both held the position that hemp products are actually illegal. Recently, the two agencies released guidance that edible hemp products can not be sold outside of licensed dispensaries. 

But the onus falls on the local boards of health which argue they are already under-resourced. “The current situation is untenable. The joint guidance is very welcome and it is going to assist in our ability to enforce, but it’s not a silver bullet,” said Cheryl Sbarra, the head of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards. “We’re still going to see those [hemp] Skittles and gummies, and beverages out there. We really can’t respond in force as quickly as we need to or with the clarity that we need.”

Sbarra said that local boards of health are theoretically able to enforce a ban on intoxicating hemp-derived products in businesses that have alcohol licenses, tobacco licenses, or food service permits by suspending those licenses. But local boards of health are stretched so thin with all the responsibilities they have that they will need additional resources.

On top of that, health boards can’t enforce in places that don’t have licenses or food permits like convenience stores and gas stations that sell only shelf-stable items.

A legislative fix could clarify which agency is responsible and would provide adequate resources for the enforcement of regulations on intoxicating hemp-based products. 

In the meantime, there continues to be a gap in enforcement – something that all of the state agencies highlighted as a problem because these products are potentially not age-restricted or tested properly.

Kimberly Roy, a member of the Cannabis Control Commission, said that an independent testing lab which the commission works with found that hemp-derived products typically had 15 to 30 contaminants. “Our independent testing lab is referring to these products as a Frankenstein-like chemical compound,” said Roy. 

Roy has described hemp-based products as a “public menace” in a previous commission meeting. She emphasized to lawmakers that cannabis operators are feeling the effects of the hemp products on their businesses.

“Licensees who have in some cases spent a large portion of their personal savings and devoted their professional lives to building a compliant, regulated business are faced with the demoralizing site of intoxicating cannabinoid products being sold down the street with no regulation, no testing, and no protection for children,” said Roy.