RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Bills creating tougher rules on intoxicating hemp products in Virginia have laid bare divisions between industry members who say the proposed rules would crush their businesses and researchers and health groups that believe it would help prevent children from using them.

The legislation awaiting Governor Glenn Youngkin’s signature would require businesses selling “an industrial hemp extract or food containing an industrial hemp extract” to get a permit and adhere to new labeling and packaging rules.

It would also cap the amount of THC — the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that gives users a high — in products to two milligrams and 0.3% per package, raise fines for violations and require hemp processors and companies to add a bittering agent to topical hemp products.

Virginia health and law enforcement groups have come out in support of the tighter regulations, calling on Youngkin to sign the legislation as approved by the General Assembly. Hemp businesses are pushing for changes, saying it would inadvertently eliminate a “thriving” industry.

The lawmaker behind the Virginia Senate’s bill said that concerns from consumers and manufacturers could lead Youngkin to make amendments before a March 27 deadline, but not to expect significant changes in the final version of the legislation.

“We don’t want to overly amend the bill so we don’t accomplish our goals, but there’s some space to narrowly amend the bill,” state Sen. Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta) told 8News on Friday.

How Virginia got here

An array of products advertised as containing synthetically derived delta-8 THC is offered for sale at a smoke shop in north Seattle on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.
An array of products advertised as containing synthetically derived delta-8 THC is offered for sale at a smoke shop in north Seattle on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene Johnson)

Hemp-derived synthetic THC products, including delta-8-THC and delta-10, have proliferated at gas stations, smoke shops and other businesses and have been linked to an increase in poison control calls and emergency room visits in Virginia.

Delta-8-THC is found in the cannabis plant, but only in trace amounts. The delta-8 products that led to concerns are synthetically made. Youngkin and many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle shared concerns over these largely unregulated, intoxicating products, specifically ones that resemble common treats and candy that they say are marketed towards children.

They cited reports of incidents involving children, including deaths linked to the products, and a spike in THC-related calls in Virginia.

“The Governor has made cracking down on dangerous THC intoxicants, including those synthesized from hemp, a priority to protect public safety,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a March 7 statement. “The conference report for HB2294 and SB903 does that.”

Critics of the hemp legislation have raised concerns over these products but said the measure would have unintended consequences for businesses and consumers. They have pointed to stalled efforts to establish a regulated cannabis market in Virginia, saying these products have been allowed to be unregulated as a result.

A call for regulations

Dr. Michelle Peace, forensic toxicologist and associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, speaks with 8News. (Photo: Dean Mirshahi)

Michelle Peace, a forensic toxicologist who oversees Virginia Commonwealth University’s Laboratory for Forensic Toxicology Research, said she’s been ringing the alarm on unregulated synthetic cannabinoids like delta-8-THC and delta-10 since 2014.

Since then, Dr. Peace said her team has tested hundreds of these products marketed as cannabis alternatives and found harmful chemicals, heavy metals and other materials, including hair and paper, in them.

“You can’t believe the certificates of analysis on these products,” Peace said after a tour of the VCU lab.

She told 8News that she became “enraged” after testing a product sent to the lab that contained synthetic marijuana, known as K2 or “spice,” that was connected to hundreds of overdoses across the country.

Peace said the sample was shared by an experienced cannabis user who purchased the product, which she said came from a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, after experiencing an adverse reaction.

“The piece that motivates me is a public being taken advantage of and a public being hurt and somebody making a lot of money off of that,” Peace told 8News.

Some of the hemp-derived THC products Dr. Peace’s team researches at VCU. (Photo: Dean Mirshahi)

For her research, Peace sometimes goes to shops that sell these products to pick a few up. She said she is often not helped, so she will change how she looks. When employees of these shops do help, Peace said they often share incorrect information and advice, including claims that delta-8 is similar to CBD.

Peace said she understands the concerns of businesses that sell CBD products, but said these companies should commit to tougher regulations to ensure consumer safety and want to rein in on synthetic products that look identical to Oreos and common gummies.

“Kids should not be targeted,” Peace told 8News. “They [the products] should not look that clever.”

Peace pointed to an increase in poison control center calls tied to unintentional exposures and adverse reactions from delta-8, including the death of a 4-year-old in Spotsylvania County who ate delta-8 THC gummies.

She is not the only one to call for quality testing and changes in Virginia’s law. Leaders from four health groups — the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Medical Society of Virginia, the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians and the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association — sent a joint letter to Youngkin sharing their concerns and asking him to sign the bill without amendments.

“As healthcare workers, our members have been alarmed by the recent surge of cases involving children who consumed these products,” they wrote.

The Virginia Sheriff’s Association sent its own letter to the governor, writing that the legislation “provides much needed protections for the children of the Commonwealth and holds accountable those taking advantage of broad loopholes in the unregulated cannabis industry.”

Dr. Peace said lawmakers need to understand that these products need to be researched more for people to better understand them. “One of the things I advocate for frequently is that we need to be able to do studies to understand head-to-head is delta-8 more potent than delta-9 versus THC-O,” she told 8News.

Wiping out a thriving industry?

In this April 24, 2018 photo, hemp plants sit at the Unique Botanicals facility in Springfield, Ore. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

While many in the hemp industry have said they support establishing clearer labeling rules on products, many of them say the bill passed by Virginia lawmakers goes too far. One hemp industry group sent a letter to the governor trying to sway him into making changes to the legislation.

In the March 6 letter, the Virginia Cannabis Association wrote the bill’s two-milligram limit would “needlessly eliminate” most of the non-intoxicating CBD products people use for pain relief, anxiety, and other therapeutic and medicinal purposes.

The cannabis association’s letter also raised concerns over how THC is defined in the bill, saying it would make CBD, a chemical found in cannabis that does not get people high, illegal. CBD is found in several products, including common personal care and health items.

“As drafted, SB903 and HB2294 would largely eliminate this entire industry, along with the associated jobs and revenue, from the Commonwealth,” the association, which is made up of a group of hemp processors and companies, wrote.

Bottles of massage oil with cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), two natural compounds found in plants of the Cannabis genus, are displayed at the Far West Holistic Center dispensary in Detroit. (AP Photo from 2018/Carlos Osorio, File)

The cannabis association cited an analysis by Whitney Economics that found hemp-derived cannabinoid retailers in the commonwealth have an estimated combined sales of $1.2 billion and the industry employs about 4,300 workers.

The study found at least 371 businesses in Virginia would close and 64 more out of the state would also shut down.

Graham Redfern, the owner of Redfern Hemp Co. in Caroline County, told 8News his business and employees would be significantly impacted if Youngkin signs the legislation as written. He sells various products, from edibles, topicals and even pet treats.

“Just about everything in the bill is concerning,” Renfern said in an interview. “Ninety percent of our products would be termed illegal if this bill is signed.”

Redfern said he supports creating rules on labeling and packaging to protect children and consumers, but that he believes THC limits established in the bill would be a huge burden for his customers and business.

For example, Redfern said some of his products, like CBD droppers, have more than two milligrams of THC per package but are meant to last for 30 days.

In order to comply with the provisions in the bill, Redfern said he would have to turn one bottle of tincture into multiple single products. This would, he told 8News, cause a strain on his company and customers.

When asked how his business would move forward if the bill is signed without changes, Redfern painted a bleak picture, telling 8News he could go out of business or be forced to move to another state. He said some in the industry may be pushed into the unregulated market.

Redfern said he’s also heard chatter about a potential court injunction to block the law from being enforced.

How the legislation could change

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speaks to members of the press inside the Rotunda of the state Capitol building on Feb. 25, 2023, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/John C. Clark, File)

Sen. Hanger said in an interview Friday that Gov. Youngkin is looking into possible changes to the hemp bill, specifically those that could impact CBD products that Virginians have grown accustomed to using for health purposes.

Noting that people use CBD oils and other products to help with epilepsy and for other medical reasons, Hanger said the governor is considering an amendment to help ensure consumers are not prevented from buying products proven to have medical benefits that have been approved by regulators already because of the two-milligram cap in the hemp bill.

He added that a change could be made to the provision requiring manufacturers to include a bittering agent in topical products such as lotions and ointments with CBD in them.

“I think there’s a way to fix that because that’s not really our target,” Hanger told 8News.

Hanger added that potential changes to the pending new law could include creating a distinction between the rules for retail shops and wholesalers in the final bill.

Gov. Youngkin has until 11:59 p.m. on March 27 to either sign the bill into law or make amendments. Virginia lawmakers will convene on April 12 to vote on any potential changes made by the governor.