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Mass Hemp Isn’t To Blame, But Response To Synthetics Could Hurt Locals

Some of your favorite edibles at licensed Bay State dispensaries feature hemp-derived minor cannabinoids. That’s different from synthetic THC being sold at convenience stores, but legislators don’t always make the distinction, sometimes with dire consequences for hemp businesses.

By Chris Faraone 

with additional reporting by Dana Forsythe

Of the issues that are sure to summon debate throughout 2024, hemp-derived synthetic cannabinoids—and untold intersecting science, commerce, health, and legal hot potatoes—may prompt the most clamor. Our team at Talking Joints Memo enlisted ace culture reporter Dana Forsythe to help us survey the landscape and speak with stakeholders and experts to produce a series that untangles the topic. This fourth of five installments considers potential paths ahead. -TJM Editors

←Click here to go back to Part 3

Though the changes haven’t led to the success and sustainability that many in the Massachusetts hemp community had hoped for, there have been major political wins for manufacturers and cultivators in the space over the past several years.

In late 2020, then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed a budget that included an amendment which opened the door for the sale of hemp products in adult-use cannabis dispensaries. Though hemp became legal in the Bay State in 2016 with the same successful ballot initiative that legalized cannabis, the former—and the cannabinoid that hemp is most relied on for, CBD—was initially left out of the profitable new dispensary marketplace overseen by the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

That changed with the aforementioned amendment, which allowed CBD topicals and oils—and, eventually, other products as well—to be sold at dispensaries. In October 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) announced that Bay State hemp farmers licensed by MDAR can also sell smokable CBD flower to CCC-licensed retailers. The change was seen as a savior for some struggling hemp cultivators, many of whom had been stockpiling bud in hopeful anticipation of such an announcement. CBD won’t get you stoned, but it’s used to help with ailments spanning pain and nausea to ADHD and anxiety, and smoking or vaping flower—as opposed to eating gummies—often provides the fastest and most predictable effects.

In October 2023, the CCC and MDAR finally released a long-promised joint bulletin outlining necessary information 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.”

Whether Massachusetts cannabis consumers realize it or not, some of their favorite products may be the result of a collaboration born from that bulletin, or at least clarified by it. A number of popular adult-use edibles feature minor cannabinoids like CBN and THCV that contribute to their entourage effect. These ingredients should not be confused with hemp-derived cannabinoids that get you high, and which are showing up in beverages and edibles in Massachusetts package and convenience stores. In fact, locals have been cut out of the beverage cold rush.

Laura Beohner is the director of the Massachusetts Hemp Coalition and president of the Newburyport-based Healing Rose Company, which makes non-psychotropic tinctures, topicals, soaps, soaks, and extracts. She said smokable CBD flower hasn’t caught on in dispensaries, and that there are only three companies left growing for that market in the state. Beohner lamented how as recently as 2018, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) had 120 licensees in its Industrial Hemp Program for growers and processors. Now, there are fewer than two dozen.

While the CBD most hemp is rich in won’t get you stoned on its own, it can be converted into synthetic versions of other cannabinoids, including delta-9 THC, that do get people lifted. The 2018 US Agriculture Improvement Act (aka the Farm Bill) legalized hemp and hemp-derived products and extracts, specifically those with a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level of 0.3% or less on a dry-weight basis, by removing hemp from the government’s list of prohibited controlled substances. Since then, synthetic THC-infused beverages and edibles have been turning up across the country. It’s all or at least mostly technically legal—many companies will even ship to you.

All states have already made or will have to make the decision to either ignore or address the influx of hemp-derived psychotropic products in non-dispensary locations, and in Massachusetts, there are calls for regulation from opponents and proponents of synthetics. Beohner of the Massachusetts Hemp Coalition is frustrated that out-of-state companies are able to sell hemp-derived edibles in places the Healing Rose can’t, but said she’s “all about getting the plant to as many people as possible, so I’m looking at it from that position.”

Beohner is working with the Hemp Beverage Alliance, a national trade association, “to help them push forward for the greater sake of hemp.” She said a bill relative to hemp and hemp products in Mass that’s currently before the Joint Committee on Agriculture could forge a positive path forward: “I try to represent everyone’s best interest in the hemp space. We have been trying to get a bill passed [for four years] to allow hemp cannabinoids in food and beverage. I know [the Hemp Beverage Alliance] is interested in carving out a beverage space, but I am also interested in carving out a food space for MDAR licenses at least.”

Other states have tried to wrangle the hemp situation, including the commonwealth’s New England neighbor to the south. Two years ago in Connecticut, lawmakers attempted to legislate away synthetic cannabinoids, which they defined as “any material, compound, mixture or preparation which contains any quantity of a substance having a psychotropic response primarily by agonist activity at cannabinoid specific receptors affecting the central nervous system that is produced artificially and not derived from an organic source naturally containing cannabinoids.”

The resulting measure, however, is perplexing, not in the least in how it clipped an unintended target—Connecticut’s licensed hemp farmers.

As explained in a new documentary titled Harvesting Hope, in 2022, the Nutmeg State “hit a big moment in its rule book when, meant as a defense against unregulated intoxicants, House Bill 6699 unleashed a shift, shaking Connecticut’s entire hemp industry.” The short film was produced by members of the Connecticut Hemp Industry Association, a nonprofit representing the state’s hemp growers that, at the time of filming, had seen its ranks of 150 hemp farmers in 2019 drop to about 35. In the doc, one producer says the law criminalized about 80% of his products.

In the new short documentary Harvesting Hope, members of the Connecticut Hemp Industry Association say their ranks of 150 hemp farmers in 2019 have dropped to about 35, and that a 2022 law criminalized about 80% of their products | Image via Harvesting Hope

According to Louis Rinaldi, a Connecticut medical cannabis patient and advocate, “There’s a small group of very influential lobbyists who represent the [state-licensed cannabis] producers who have been in control here, and they just want to eliminate as much of the competition as possible.”

Rinaldi has “been working since 2019 to improve patient outcomes through common sense, populist policy, and education,” including on these issues. About House Bill 6699 specifically, he said, “It did the same thing we have seen in a lot of other markets, which is basically overriding the Farm Bill. They only want those products to be in regulated dispensaries, and oddly enough, one of the loopholes in the bill is that [out-of-state companies] can still sell hemp-derived delta-9 drinks in liquor stores. What [Connecticut legislators] didn’t realize was that, as of [Oct. 1, 2023], you have California brands in [the national chain store Total Wine & More] with end caps.”

Local hemp growers, meanwhile, were completely cut out of the action. “They can’t even sell a full-spectrum CBD tincture,” Rinaldi said.

Beohner hopes that Massachusetts arrives at a much better solution, preferably one which actually boosts the local hemp industry. Whatever has to happen, for many CCC-licensed companies, these are pressing problems, and they must be dealt with swiftly.

“The concern for license holders seeing these out-of-state hemp brands fueling the rise of delta-9 THC, with unregulated products available outside of regulated dispensaries and the strict structural barriers in place for consumer safety, is significant,” said Meg Sanders, CEO and co-owner of Canna Provisions and Smash Hits Cannabis. “The need to close regulatory loopholes to ensure consumer safety is currently being emphasized with every call for these products to come under regulatory oversight.”

In Maine, a bill proposed to close those loopholes was defeated in committee last week. An Act to Regulate Synthetic Hemp-derived Cannabinoids would have decimated distribution of out-of-state drinks in Vacationland, but, worried that Maine hemp growers would also get hammered by the measure, small traditional cannabis operators emerged in solidarity with their hemp counterparts, and pushed lawmakers to kill the legislation.

Here in the Bay State, one group of cannabis licensees is planning to push for legislation that would, among other things, make it difficult or even impossible for out-of-state businesses—and, potentially, some in-state ones as well—to sell derivatives here. Tentatively dubbed An Act to Promote Equity and Enhance Employment Opportunities in the Cannabis Industry (the bill has yet to be filed, but we obtained a copy for this story), it would also open up delivery to hotels, increase the amount of weed people can carry, double the number of licenses a retailer can hold to six, and require that products treated with radiation be labeled as such, among other things. The section on converted cannabinoids is especially sharp. The draft alleges in its preamble:

There are hemp-derived tetrahydrocannabinol products being sold through online retailers and retailers throughout the Commonwealth [that] are intoxicating and often contain as much or more THC as products sold by licensed marijuana establishments. Because these products are unregulated and untested, they often have packaging and flavors that appeal to minors and are known to contain high levels of heavy metals, pesticides and other dangerous contaminants. … The availability of these products in the Commonwealth is serious threat to public health and safety.

In its attempt to excommunicate unregulated hemp products, the bill proposes adding language to commonwealth law that would prohibit “the sale or transfer of hemp-derived cannabinoids or THCA without an intoxicating hemp endorsement on a marijuana retailer license from the commission,” and require the CCC, which currently has no oversight or jurisdiction beyond CCC-licensed businesses, to “adopt regulations to implement” these rules. The legislation also includes penalties for “the unlicensed sale of hemp-derived cannabinoids or THCA with one year in house or correction or $25,000 fine or both.”

Beohner of the Massachusetts Hemp Coalition said she is concerned about the bill: “It would really come down on [the approximately 20 remaining] MDAR licensees. We’ve been decimated, we’re not trying to take over your space, and the gummies at gas stations are not made in Massachusetts, so stop trying to regulate Massachusetts hemp.”

While the legislative lunge is being paid for by large multi-state operators Ascend Wellness, Verano Holdings, and Green Thumb Industries, all of which have skin in the Mass cannabis game, it also has support from some smaller operators. Trade Roots was the first Social Equity business to obtain licenses in retail, manufacturing, and cultivation, and operates all of the above out of its Wareham location near Cape Cod. Co-founders Jesse Pitts and Carl Giannone have watched hemp brands creep in for months, and decided that the best way to fix what they perceive as a major flaw is via legislative action.

“We’re concerned from two standpoints—public safety being number one,” Giannone said. Part of his team’s motivation for getting involved comes from finding potent synthetic THC gummies for sale at convenience stores near their shop, potentially where underage people could buy them. “What happens if this brings back reefer madness? A kid gets sick, and all of a sudden pot is the enemy.”

Giannone continued, “On the business side, when we got into this business, there was a set of rules put out, and then the Hemp Bill came out, and this wasn’t the intention. All of a sudden you have these companies that found this loophole.”

Last month, Giannone floated the draft language above addressing the sale of synthetic cannabinoids in Mass on LinkedIn, and responses from the hempisphere were harsh. One economist who studies cannabis and hemp blasted, “This proposed legislation is so loosely worded that it will do significant damage to non intoxicating cannabinoid related businesses that have been around for years. … This also has the potential to impact hemp based foods as well.”

Piling on, a dispensary owner from New Jersey added, “The sad part of all this is they are deluded into thinking if we close the loophole they’ll go to a dispensary. Instead of addressing the reasons consumers don’t go to the dispensary in the first place we resort to stupidity.” While Chris Fontes of the Arizona-based High Spirits Beverages, a policy committee member with the Hemp Beverage Alliance, the National Industrial Hemp Council of America, and the Cannabis Beverage Association, commented, “Notice nothing in the legislation you posted had anything to do with safety and everything to do with protectionism.”

Hemp Beverage Alliance Executive Director Christopher Lackner said his group’s members are looking for guidance and regulation—just not those regulations. “These aren’t rogue companies trying to foist this on a population,” he said. “This is an entire supply chain working with the distributors, the retailers, etc. to create an industry that works for everybody.”

The owner of another company that sells non-psychotropic CBD products to CCC-licensed dispensaries said companies that deal with hemp in Mass already have to manage excessive compliance put in place by MDAR. (We showed them the proposed language in the aforementioned draft bill, and they asked to be quoted anonymously out of fear of blowback from regulators and peers as well as competitors.) Companies like theirs aren’t profiting from the hemp-derived delta-9 drink boom, and they worry that “unnecessary” legislation could “redefine intoxicating THC to include CBN and some of these other best-selling minor cannabinoids.”

“It’s just getting harder and harder to make money every day,” they said. “You’re just hurting the hemp program for no reason. … If this language is approved, it would ruin the Massachusetts hemp program, prevent the creation or sale of isolates like CBN that most dispensaries buy from MDAR companies, and do nothing to stop the creation or sale of hemp-derived THC products that are upsetting these cannabis companies.”

Next: When cannabis companies embrace hemp.