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Louisiana on track to dismantle consumable hemp industry after accidentally legalizing it

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Louisiana on track to dismantle consumable hemp industry after accidentally legalizing it

May 15, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Wesley Muller
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Louisiana on track to dismantle consumable hemp industry after accidentally legalizing it
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A bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, would make it illegal to manufacture or sell products that contain any amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Louisiana unless they are licensed medical marijuana products. The measure would wipe out what some consider an established industry in Louisiana. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Louisiana lawmakers are one step away from dismantling a consumable hemp industry they created two years ago after unwittingly legalizing products that can get people high. 

Senate Bill 237, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, cleared the House Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice in a 7-5 vote Tuesday. The bill, for which 67 lobbyists and organizations filled out cards in opposition, would make it illegal to manufacture or sell products that contain any amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in cannabis called THC for short, unless they are licensed medical marijuana products. 

In 2022, the Louisiana Legislature legalized hemp edibles with limited amounts of delta-9 THC for adults 21 and older. Some lawmakers say they only voted for it based on then-House Speaker Clay Schexnayder’s claim that it would take “tractor-trailer loads” of the stuff to get high. At the time, the Republican speaker was repeating a misleading, though perhaps technically accurate, statement a hemp farmer had made during a committee hearing.   

Related to the marijuana plant, hemp is a type of cannabis with very low levels of THC. Still, manufacturers of consumable hemp products are able to extract those small amounts of THC and concentrate them into levels that can produce an intoxicating effect.  

Tuesday’s vote fell mostly along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of the repeal, except for Rep. Chad Boyer of Breaux Bridge who sided with Democrats against it. Pressly’s proposal drew similar partisan lines in the Senate, with every Republican endorsing it and most Democrats opposing it except for Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge and Sen. Royce Duplessis of New Orleans.

The House committee members heard Tuesday from several business owners who testified that the bill would effectively destroy the consumable hemp industry and kill jobs. There are more than 2,000 licensed hemp businesses in Louisiana, according to data from the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. 

Paige Melancon, owner of Louisiana Hemp Extractors, spoke in worried tones when he told the committee Pressly’s bill would force him to close his factory, which he said is one of the largest hemp manufacturing facilities in the country. Melancon started the business just a few years ago when the state began loosening its cannabis laws. 

“I feel like I’m being fired right now,” Melancon told the lawmakers, “and I want you guys to come with me and fire my employees when we leave here, if you choose to do that.”

Brushing aside the business closures and tax revenue loss the state might see if the bill is approved, some Republicans on the committee repeatedly voiced their disapproval with the idea of “getting high.”

Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, said the consumable hemp industry is selling products that intoxicate people. To back up his claim, he held up a photograph of a head shop near his home called LA Sky High.  

Fontenot’s point didn’t land with Rep. Alonzo Knox, D-New Orleans, who said one could make the same claim about beer and liquor stores. 

“Even if someone were to buy the product to get high, what’s the problem with that?” Knox asked. 

Among those backing Pressly’s bill is Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian lobbying group that claims to “champion free-market economics, entrepreneurship and private property” as well as “limited government,” according to its website.  

“Our vision is to build a Louisiana where God is honored, life is respected, families flourish and liberties reign,” Mills said.

House speaker blames health department for illegal hemp products

Mills and other proponents of Pressly’s bill pointed to the lack of consistency with serving sizes and THC concentrations among products. They also said manufacturers are packaging consumable hemp products in ways that appeal to kids. 

For every witness who testified about the dangers of high THC dosages, Knox told them he “totally agreed” with them and asked why those issues couldn’t be solved with proper regulation.

“I would simply echo that the best regulation is the elimination of this illegitimate industry,” Mills responded.

Pressly and Mills referred numerous times to the misleading claim about “tractor-trailer loads” of hemp that Schexnayder repeated to the House years ago. They displayed various products they claimed had dangerous doses of hemp extract, including a can of lemonade with 50 milligrams of THC. 

The 2022 law called for a maximum of 8 milligrams per serving, but it also mistakenly allowed manufacturers to determine serving sizes and did not limit the number of servings in a single product. As a result, some manufacturers exploited that loophole and started putting multiple 8 milligram servings into single packages. 

“Is the packaging basically a scam?” Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, asked. 

The Louisiana Department of Health adopted emergency regulations last year to correct some of the issues, but the Legislature has still not fixed the statutory provision that allows manufacturers to set the number of servings per product. 

Lawmakers could solve the problem with appropriate legislation that corrects the language in the law “rather than killing an entire industry,” Knox said.  

“Is the intent to get rid of an entire industry?” he asked Pressly. 

“The intent is to get rid of an intoxicating product,” Pressly replied.

Crescent Canna CEO Joe Gerrity pointed out that Pressly’s bill does nothing to prohibit consumers in Louisiana from purchasing the same hemp products online from other states. As a result, he said, the bill will only deprive Louisiana of tax revenue without actually banning the product. 

“You can go online right now and purchase products that far exceed the THC regulations that this body has set forth without any problem, without any real age verification and to no benefit of anybody in Louisiana,” Gerrity said. 

Gerrity’s company has manufacturing facilities in other states but sells some of his products in Louisiana, including the lemonade drink Pressly displayed earlier to the committee. 

When asked why he has no facilities in Louisiana, Gerrity minced no words in expressing his dissatisfaction with the precarious business climate lawmakers have created for his industry. 

“Louisiana, if you haven’t noticed, has a desire to disrupt our industry,” he told lawmakers. “And investing the significant amount of money we would need to in this state to manufacture here when every year we come up against opposition in the Legislature that could cripple us and destroy us, is, frankly speaking, a terrible business decision.” 

Pressly’s proposal heads to the House floor for final passage. If amended, it would return to the Senate for concurrence.

Correction: Two Senate Democrats voted in favor of repealing the hemp law: Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge and Sen. Royce Duplessis of New Orleans. An earlier version of this article left out Duplessis.