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Lawmakers Hold Sham Session On Hemp, Bask In Foregone Conclusions

With no growers, manufacturers, or stakeholders invited to testify, officials fear monger and triple down on regulations about hemp-derived products in Massachusetts

Tuesday’s oversight hearing on hemp held by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Agriculture was not random. Rather, it came on the heels of actions by state agencies to ban hemp-derived substances, and in the midst of uproar from various factions regarding the future of products that fall in tangential categories.

This is an extremely dicey issue, with various subtopics that intersect at some points, but which shouldn’t necessarily be lumped together. And since that’s been a problem with a media that knows even less about this stuff than the politicians all across the country who are tripping over one another to save children from the scourge of gaseteria gummies, here’s some background to consider:

  • Since the passage of the federal Agriculture Improvement Act (aka the Farm Bill) in 2018 removed hemp—a plant that is essentially the same as cannabis sativa minus the psychotropic effects—from the Controlled Substances Act, it’s been off to the races in this parallel arena. The result has been a booming alternative weed world in which operations ranging from small kitchen setups to industrial plants process CBD from said now-legal hemp into so-called synthetic cannabinoids that actually get you high, and then move those goods across state lines with amnesty.

  • Last October, the Cannabis Control Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources released a joint bulletin outlining the rules for licensed Marijuana Establishments and Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers selling hemp products. Among the rules: these companies “can only obtain hemp from MDAR Licensees,” they “can only obtain certain hemp or hemp products if labeled and tested appropriately by MDAR standards,” and “the final Marijuana Product [made using hemp] is also subject to Commission testing and labeling standards.” (For even more context, explore our five-part series on hemp in the Bay State).

  • But Tuesday’s hearing wasn’t really about substances that fall under the purview of the CCC and are sold in dispensaries. Officials are worked up about hemp-derived products—some of which get you stoned, and others that do not—that for the most part are not regulated by the agency responsible for watching the weed world. And there is variety among them, ranging from, say, delta-8 or delta-10 edibles that are available at quickie marts and head shops and pack enough psychotropic oomph to level you, to mellow hemp-derived seltzers with 5mg of THC that many liquor stores in Mass were selling up until last week.

Per the fine print, Tuesday’s so-called hearing was actually “a listening session for committee members and members of the public.” According to the event description: “The Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy will host an oversight hearing at which government agencies within the Committee’s purview will introduce themselves to the Commonwealth to describe their work and answer questions regarding the intricacies of hemp policy and regulation.”

So it was essentially a dog and pony show to outline basic prohibitionist positions, and to hear out regulators and officials who play major roles in all of this, but whose views are just part of a much bigger picture. No hemp growers, manufacturers, or sellers were invited, though they were able to submit comments in writing. Instead, we heard from members of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, who expressed concerns about delta-8 and delta-9 products which are “created in labs using dangerous solvents” showing up in their cities and towns.

“Massachusetts went through a really careful process to legalize cannabis,” said Phoebe Walker, the director of community services at the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. But since the legalization of hemp at the federal level, she added, we’ve seen the sale of goods with potency that’s “ten times more than we have agreed is ok to sell.”

Maureen Buzby, the tobacco control coordinator for the Melrose Board of Health, brought kratom, a plant that has literally nothing to do with hemp at all, as well as psilocybin into the discussion. Seemingly regarding all these substances, she denounced distributors of these products for telling retailers that they are legal—even though some of the substances in question are in fact legal, or at least they were legal in Massachusetts until recently.

Cheryl Sbarra, the executive director of the MAHB, was somewhat realistic about how trying to run hemp-derived products out of Mass is like trying to fill a pool with urine. She explained how stores that sell shelf-stable products like Twinkies and Coke are the main problem, since they don’t have food service or alcohol permits to yank for noncompliance. So while liquor stores have been scared out of selling hemp drinks by recent threats from the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, there’s little stopping corner stores from slinging hemp-infused fugazi Skittles. Sbarra noted that municipalities could pull their licenses to sell tobacco, but the idea of kneecapping bodegas didn’t seem to sit well with state Sen. Adam Gomez of Springfield.

MDAR Commissioner Ashley Randle noted her agency’s authority over all things hemp in the commonwealth, and lamented the decline in licensed hemp growers, from 107 in 2019 to just 35 in 2023. But then came the big joke of the day, following a question posed by state Rep. Paul Schmid about how lawmakers could possibly help hemp farmers. Despite every person in the room knowing that the answer is to allow them to grow hemp for these converted products, none made the suggestion. Instead, Randle boasted of her team’s anti-hemp collaboration with the ABCC and DPH. 

No one brought a bigger bag of bullshit than Robbie Goldstein, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. After some lip service about structural racism that had nothing to do with the topic, he started fear mongering about children and food safety. Goldstein made some sense in speaking about how these topics often intersect between various agencies, and reinforced Sbarra’s point about stores that only sell shelf-stable foods. But the DPH honcho ran into a problem facing the simplest question of all posed by state Rep. Dan Donahue, who chairs the Joint Committee on Cannabis Policy. … 

Asked if there are any actual public health numbers showing the dangers of hemp-derived products in Mass, Goldstein said that they don’t have any, but nevertheless noted that there is some data coming out from the FDA about “significant morbidity” resulting from these products. Which is total bullshit; even the federal government can only find one such case, and it’s pediatric. Also citing no specific data, Goldstein added that the “impact of these products is increasing in Massachusetts.”

Wrapping up the afternoon was Kimberly Roy, a CCC commissioner who sits in the public health seat on that body. “We are doing a deep dive into the amount of hemp products that are infused into cannabis products,” Roy said. She then read from an email from an independent testing lab that she received in advance of the hearing. After nearly two hours, it was some of the first actual helpful information delivered. Quoting the lab, she said, “Our data typically reveals 15 to 30 different contaminants in these products, meaning the unregulated intoxicating hemp.” Furthermore, they’re finding “Frankenstein-like chemical compounds that have never existed before.”

Had they asked people from the actual hemp and cannabis arena to share their thoughts verbally, state lawmakers would have heard more sides of the story. Among other things, they would have learned about how CCC licensees and those making some hemp products can potentially co-exist safely and peacefully. 

Adam Terry is the CEO and co-founder of Cantrip, a Mass-based business that initially began manufacturing drinks in the licensed CCC space, then abandoned that plan and moved fully into hemp beverages. Cantrip has since found success elsewhere, and was selling drinks in Massachusetts liquor stores until the ABCC swung its hammer last month. In a testimony he submitted to the Joint Committee on Agriculture and shared with Talking Joints Memo, Terry calls for building “a framework for selling hemp-derived THC beverages responsibly, to adults through liquor stores.”

“This framework,” he continues, “should include: Ban synthetic cannabinoids in their entirety – these are the majority of gas station/bodega products; Require COAs for all hemp beverages accessible through a QR code on the can; these COAs should at minimum meet the MA standards for potency, microbials, and mycotoxins; Impose a limit on total milligrams of THC in a beverage at a liquor store to 10mg; Require child-resistant packaging; Require these to be sold only through the three-tier liquor system, empowering distributors to vet products and sell to responsible liquor licensees; Impose a 10% tax on hemp-derived products which can be used to fund enforcement against synthetic cannabinoids and gas stations/bodegas illegally selling non-compliant products.”

As things look now in Massachusetts, none of that will happen any time soon, as lawmakers and regulators incestuously amplify one another and omit the input of hemp industry stakeholders.