RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As Virginia puts recreational marijuana sales on hold, lawmakers are cracking down on another widely-sold substance that’s causing safety concerns. It may force some stores to close their doors this summer.
Delta-8 is a chemical compound much like Delta-9 THC, the main intoxicating substance in marijuana.
Despite the legalization of limited marijuana possession last year, it remains illegal to sell cannabis outside of medical dispensaries in Virginia.
Meanwhile, lawmakers say Delta-8 is in gas stations and specialty stores across the state due to loopholes in the law. One shop is reportedly owned by a state senator.
Dr. Michelle Peace, an associate professor of forensic science at Virginia Commonwealth University, said there are tons of unsafe products being marketed as Delta-8.
Peace said Delta-8 is found naturally in small amounts in hemp, which is legal to sell under federal law. Part of the problem is that many products actually contain what is legally defined as marijuana. Others are synthetically produced with Delta-8 concentrations that are far too high and much larger than the label would suggest.
“You cannot trust the label,” Peace said. “It can also contain all of these other chemicals like solvents and acids that would be dangerous for the consumer to take. So these Delta-8 products are not quality tested.”
A lack of regulation and enforcement has allowed the problem to persist, according to Peace.
“You’re trusting the shop who manufacturer the product to tell you what is in the product. That is the fox watching the hen house,” Peace said.
Meanwhile, poison centers are reporting an increase in calls related to Delta-8, many of which are resulting in hospitalization.
Peace looked at one sample out of Roanoke after a two-year-old consumed what appeared to be regular cereal and ended up in the emergency room. She said tests later revealed the product was mislabeled and contained Delta-9 THC.
A bill that started as a way to ban the sale of marijuana edibles in certain shapes that appeal to children is now aiming to tackle a much broader issue.
While other states are criminalizing Delta-8, JM Pedini with Virginia NORML said the General Assembly is planning to regulate it for the first time by expanding the state’s definition of marijuana.
Pedini said the bill, which won unanimous support in the Senate, would require these products to be properly labeled and tested for potency and purity. It would only allow licensed retailers to sell Delta-8 to those 21 and older.
“What we’re trying to do is say these products are unacceptable just in your traditional stores along the street,” said bill sponsor Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta). “There will be a mechanism where they can be sold in a regulated, licensed market.”
The catch is the regulated market just hit a major roadblock. House Republicans rejected a bill that would’ve allowed commercial sales of recreational marijuana to start later this year. Without further action, no licenses can be issued by the Cannabis Control Authority, the new state agency that will oversee the industry.
If the bill takes effect July 1, Hanger said it will be illegal to sell products with elevated levels of Delta-8 indefinitely in Virginia. Hanger said vendors who refuse to comply would initially get a warning but penalties could escalate after that.
“I’m not suggesting that people will be incarcerated right away but it could lead to that if there is someone out there who insists on marketing an illegal product,” Hanger said.
The bill could impact businesses like THE Dispensary in Richmond, which offers a wide variety of “pure Delta-8 and Delta-10” products.
Sarah Grant, who manages the store, said they set their own standards that go well beyond what the law currently requires. She said they do ID checks at the door and they won’t let anyone in who is under 21 years old. She said they also have a third party test all of their products and allow customers to access that information through QR codes.
“As part of the community and wanting to see this expand and grow, we want to make sure we are dotting our Is and crossing our Ts,” Grant said.
While she agrees the industry as a whole needs more regulation, Grant said the bill on the cusp of final passage in the House of Delegates would force them to close their doors this summer.
Jocliene Williamson, who manages THE Dispensary in Chesterfield, said this would disadvantage customers who use Delta-8 to deal with conditions like PTSD, anxiety and depression, pushing them towards the black market.
“Get us the license without us having to close our doors. You will be impacting a lot of people that rely on our product in order to have a good quality life,” Williamson said. “It makes no sense to discipline those who are doing everything they can.”