RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill to set tougher regulations on intoxicating hemp products before wrapping up the 2023 legislative session.
Divisions over the measure were made clear in the Virginia Senate, where some called it a needed step forward to address a safety issue and others argued it would lead to new legal issues for people and drive some out of business.
Both chambers of the assembly adopted the conference report on House Bill 2294, sponsored by Republican House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore (Scott), on Friday to establish requirements on packaging and labeling hemp-derived synthetic THC products that get people high but have remained largely unregulated.
The hemp-based products have proliferated at gas stations, smoke shops and other businesses since Virginia legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The products, including delta-8 and delta-10, have been linked to an increase in poison control calls and emergency room visits in Virginia.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and many lawmakers have raised concerns over the products, pointing to reports of incidents involving children, and pushed for establishing rules to protect consumers.
Under the bill heading to Youngkin’s desk, businesses selling “an industrial hemp extract or food containing an industrial hemp extract” must get a permit to do so and the products they sell can’t contain more than 0.3% THC or have more than two milligrams of THC per package.
The legislation also requires the products to have labels “in a font no less than 1/16 of an inch” with their ingredients listed and showing the THC per serving and per package in percentage and milligrams. The bill also sets a $10,000 penalty per day for violators.
Youngkin is expected to sign the measure after calling on lawmakers before the 2023 General Assembly session to pass tighter rules on these hemp-derived products. Efforts to set up a regulatory framework for retail cannabis sales have stalled in the legislature and Youngkin has remained noncommittal on approving a bill to establish a market.
The House of Delegates didn’t spend much time on the measure on Friday, with Minority Leader Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) saying he was “begrudgingly” voting in favor of the bill before the chamber approved it 85-9.
The debate in the Virginia Senate revealed the issue was not a partisan one. Senate Democrats and Republicans spoke in support of the bill, saying it would help address pressing public safety concerns.
And some Democrats argued it would hurt small businesses, discourage many from even applying for a permit and lead to more regulatory confusion surrounding marijuana that lawmakers would need to set right down the line.
Critics of the bill, including state Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Prince William), said its broad definition of marijuana would lead to issues for those buying products in other states who bring them into Virginia and businesses.
“If I happen to buy product in Tennessee or North Carolina and I happen to buy over one ounce, based on this definition, you’re in trouble,” Sen. McPike said on the Virginia Senate floor Friday, arguing the bill’s definition would target products with CBD including lip balm and granola bars.
“There’s so many complications and errors in this bill and it’s not the intent of either patron. This is a complex issue and the way the definitions now interface, this is going to get a whole bunch of people, both in trouble and out of business,” McPike added.
Supporters of the legislature acknowledged the bill isn’t a perfect fix, but a step Virginia needs to make to address consumer safety concerns. State Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) said the compromise would ensure protections to help children, adding that she was “OK with” the broader definition of marijuana in the bill.
“I want a market that is safe, clear, that protects consumers…” Sen. Favola said Friday. “I think this is a necessary first step.”
“This is a first step towards a complete mess, that’s what this is,” state Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said in response.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) would oversee the regulatory system of these hemp products, according to the bill, and marijuana regulations would be overseen by the Virginia Cannabis Control Authority. This system, Sen. Surovell said, would be similar to Virginia ABC regulating liquor but the Virginia Department of Health regulating beer.
“This is a crazy way to proceed,” Surovell said on the Senate floor Friday, arguing Youngkin’s hesitation to approve a regulatory system for retail recreational sales has put Virginia in a difficult position and that lawmakers would have to eventually undo the rules set in the bill.
State Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City) and state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) clashed over the cause of the issue.
Sen. Norment called the legislation to allow marijuana possession that Ebbin sponsored “one of the worst, disgraceful” crafted bills he’s seen and that consumer safety concerns over hemp-based THC products would be “moot” if Virginia repealed the marijuana law.
Sen. Ebbin argued that the loophole allowing the products from going largely unregulated was a product of Virginia not approving a regulatory framework for retail sales of cannabis.
In Virginia, those 21 and over can possess up to an ounce of cannabis, grow up to four plants in their homes, receive it as a gift or buy it from a medical dispensary with a license. But without a market, adults can’t buy it for recreational use.
In the end, the bill passed the Virginia Senate on a 23-17 bipartisan vote.