PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When President Donald Trump signed the 2018 farm bill into law, hemp and hemp-derived products like CBD suddenly became legal across the country.
The law created a new market that spurred farmers to grow hemp, and led retailers — including gas stations and bodegas — to start selling everything from edibles to hemp flower.
The products are legal so long as the hemp doesn’t contain more than 0.3% of THC — also known as “delta-9” — which is the main psychoactive compound found in recreational or medical cannabis. In simpler terms, it’s the stuff that gets you high.
But five years later, Rhode Island cannabis regulators are increasingly concerned that the farm bill has given birth to unregulated and potentially dangerous products that are exceedingly potent, attractive to teenagers and available to anyone regardless of age.
“It’s a very messy place that we find ourselves in with these products in this unregulated market,” said Erica Ferrelli, chief of strategic planning, monitoring and evaluation at the R.I. Office of Cannabis Regulation.
“The products themselves are intoxicating,” she added. “To what level, we’re not sure and we don’t know everything else that are in these products as well, mostly because they’re untested and secondly because the conversion process is vastly understudied — if studied at all.”
The process of converting the hemp from a non-psychoactive substance into something that gets a person high is complicated for anyone who doesn’t have an advanced degree in science.
But in simple terms, chemists and entrepreneurs have paired up across the country to take low-THC hemp, chemically alter the underlying compounds and create a massively elevated psychoactive effect that’s often marketed as “delta-8” or “delta-10.”
And while regulators have taken steps to tamp down the shadow market, companies selling the products argue there’s nothing illegal about what they’re doing under the farm bill because the hemp used to create the products doesn’t exceed the 0.3% THC limit.
The words “Farm Bill Compliant” are often printed on the labeling.
Regulators are dubious of the claims, however, arguing that because the products aren’t part of Rhode Island’s heavily regulated cannabis industry — which includes strict rules around growing, testing and labeling — there’s no oversight of the hemp-derived products.
And that means the hemp could be grown in toxic fields, chemically changed with dangerous agents and contain any level of psychoactive compounds that are unknown without regulated testing.
“Any product you get from the regulated market here in Rhode Island is traceable — you can go back through every step in the process and find exactly what was used,” said Stuart Procter, co-founder and lab director at PureVita Labs, a West Warwick marijuana and hemp testing company.
“If you are buying something off the internet, you literally have no idea,” he told Target 12. “That hemp could have grown in a radioactive wasteland for all you know.”
The products are easily accessible online. And they are often sold as candy or colorful snacks looking similar to rice crispy treats. The marketing, regulators warn, is meant to target younger customers who are prohibited from purchasing cannabis at licensed retailers. The legal age limit for cannabis is 21 years old in Rhode Island.
“There’s nothing mandating that the shop owners check IDs, which is incredibly problematic,” Ferrelli said. “These products are completely untested, and they can be sold to minors.”
‘A huge dose’
To put the claims to the test, Target 12 purchased rice-crispy-style treats and gummies online — both boasting they were products derived from hemp that had less than 0.3% THC.
Within days, the products came through the mail in unmarked packaging. Target 12 then brought the edibles to PureVita, which is one of only a few labs that test products sold at the state’s seven sanctioned cannabis retail businesses.
PureVita tested the products and within a week produced results showing that while the items were relatively free of biological and chemical contaminants, such as lead and arsenic, the gummies had a lower amount of psychoactive compounds than advertised.
Conversely, the rice crispy treat came back containing 70 milligrams of both delta-9 and delta-8, which are both psychoactive compounds, and far above the legal limit of 10 milligrams in Rhode Island. The package came with four “rainbow squares,” meaning overall it contained 280 milligrams of psychoactive compounds.
“It’s a huge dose,” Procter said, explaining that 70 milligrams would put the average consumer “on their bottoms for a very long time, or in bed or potentially in some kind of psychosis that may end up in the hospital.”
Procter also warned that while 70 milligrams “would not kill” a child, “it would still be a very traumatic experience and put someone in a very bad place for at least a day or two.”
“If a child found this and just ate it then it would be very surprising if that child did not end up in the ER,” he added.
Regulators said they’re seeing it happen locally.
“Folks have reached out to us because of both adverse reactions they themselves have had via purchasing these products, or that their children have had either through intentional consumption or through finding a product that looks exactly like a Sour Patch Kid or Starburst and unintentionally consuming that and ending up in the hospital,” Ferrelli said.
‘Having that conversation’
In response, regulators have been going store-to-store across the state to try and educate owners of gas stations and corner stores about the potential dangers associated with the unregulated products.
The effort may be having an effect.
Target 12 visited more than a dozen gas stations, smoke shops and corner stores — some located near high schools and colleges — to try and buy the unregulated hemp-derived products.
Several store employees acknowledged that while they had previously sold the products, they had taken them off the shelves after regulators told them they weren’t allowed.
Ferrelli said she was pleased with what they see as some progress on the issue.
“It’s really just us going out and trying to inform the shop owners and the public at large,” Ferrelli said.
But regulators are wary about not having strong legal protection because of the loophole in the 2018 farm bill, which could theoretically supersede any state-level regulation. In other words, it’s unclear whether their attempts to get the products out of unregulated stores would hold up legally if they were ever challenged in court.
And there’s currently no public effort underway to try and close the federal loophole, making it unclear how — if ever — the shadow market might disappear entirely.
In the meantime, Ferrelli encourages people to educate themselves and their families about the potential dangers associated with these products.
“I would just be very wary about any product that is coming from the unregulated market,” she said. “And just having that conversation as well with your kids and just with your communities on what these products actually are. The unreliability of the labels, the untested aspects of them and just the dangerous effects that could happen if they were to consume something that you really don’t know what it is.”