Intoxicating Hemp Products: What You Need to Know
Updated: Apr 12
We want to share important information about a relatively new type of drug being sold in Marin that technically any 10-year old can buy.
Youth can now legally access intoxicating hemp-derived cannabis edibles, vapes and other products because of loopholes in federal and California laws. These drugs are poorly regulated and can have very harmful health effects. They are extremely risky to use, especially for youth with developing brains.
Intoxicating hemp-derived products are currently being sold outside of licensed cannabis stores, and can be found in local gas stations, shops and convenience stores. This makes them easily accessible by youth. They are widely available through online delivery (think Amazon!). And they're marketed through social media like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok.
There is no minimum age legal requirement to purchase these products.
As with marijuana, these edibles are being manufactured in a wide variety of flavors, have catchy names and are sold with bright packaging to attract kids. They come in the form of drinks, drink concentrates (that could be added to water or alcohol like vodka), gummies, candies, cookies etc. What is perhaps most concerning is that they can legally contain astronomical amounts of intoxicating cannabinoids such as THC.
The photos appearing throughout this newsletter were all taken at two smoke shops and a gas station convenience store we visited in Central Marin.
This blog will answer the following questions:
WHAT IS A HEMP-DERIVED CANNABIS PRODUCT?
Hemp products are derived from the same species of cannabis plant as marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.). Hemp is essentially a “lower grade” cannabis subspecies with a smaller amount of naturally occurring THC (less than .3% of Delta-9). This means that if you picked off the leaves and smoked them, you wouldn’t get high. If only this were happening, we wouldn’t be sending out a newsletter on hemp and sounding the alarm.
But when hemp leaves and flowers are processed in a lab, a distillate or extract of THC can be produced from the CBD in the plant. These hemp THC extracts and derivatives can make you high.
Manufacturers are putting these hemp extracts into an array of edible products so their intoxicating THC strength mimics regulated marijuana products (from higher potency cannabis plants). But because the THC was originally derived from hemp, and if the weight of the THC does not exceed a certain percentage of the food’s final weight, the product is not regulated or restricted in the same fashion as the similar ones made from marijuana.
WHAT KIND OF INTOXICANTS ARE MADE FROM HEMP?
The most commonly available hemp edibles contain cannabinoids (i.e., compounds) named Delta-8 THC and Delta-10 THC. These hemp cannabinoids are variants of the more recognizable Delta-9 THC, the primary intoxicating chemical in regulated marijuana. To make your head really spin, lately cannabis laboratories are experimenting with a long list of other chemicals they are creating from hemp, and companies are putting these in edibles too. They include hemp Delta-11 THC, HHC, HHC-O and -P, THC-B, -H, -P and -V, THCM, THCA.
Some of these hemp compounds are synthetically created, and others can be naturally derived. Because of the way laws in California were written, foods can legally contain huge amounts of intoxicating hemp cannabinoids. For example, one Tostito style corn chip can have 12 mg. of THC, so a serving size of only 7 chips would have 84 mg. of THC. A two ounce hemp cookie can contain 168 mg of THC, and a ten ounce can of hemp soda can legally contain as much as 840 milligrams of THC. Given that the generally accepted serving size of THC in a cannabis edible is only 10 mg, hemp edibles can be in the form of high potency cannabis.
We know that products with a high potency of THC are especially harmful to developing adolescent brains. Because these hemp THC edibles are regulated differently, not only are they far more accessible but they are cheaper too, because the state cannabis taxes don’t apply.
In California, hemp THC Delta-8, 9 and 10 products are legal and only allowed to be sold in a food form (not in inhalable or smokable form like joints or vapes). The other set of hemp-derived chemicals, hemp Delta-11 THC, HHC, HHC-O and -P, THC-B, -H, -P and -V, THCM, THCA are technically illegal under current California law. Although most are not even supposed to be in the marketplace, they are easily found in products in stores. The unfortunate reality is that the enforcement arms of our cannabis regulators on the state level, and the FDA on the national level, are stretched so thin they can barely keep track of these products.
Some hemp-derived THC cannabinoids like Delta-8 are touted as a milder alternative to regular marijuana THC (e.g., they're often marketed as a relaxed and euphoric high without panic or paranoia), but they can actually be quite powerful. To understand the strength of these products, remember that marijuana from 1969 into the late 1970s days ("Woodstock Weed") was around 1-3% THC potency.
Hemp-derived products often come with unsubstantiated health claims, as exemplified in this popular hemp company's website. Yet none of these products have been proven safe or effective - and there is mounting evidence to the contrary.
WHY ARE THESE PRODUCTS RISKY AND POTENTIALLY VERY HARMFUL?
Negative impacts from hemp-derived THC include hallucinations, anxiety, confusion, dizziness, tremors, vomiting and loss of consciousness. In 2022, which was the first year Delta-8 THC was added to their database, the national poison control centers received 2,362 exposure cases. 70% required health care facility evaluation (45% of those were pediatric patients). Of the people evaluated, 18% required hospitalization and 8% were admitted to a critical care unit. One pediatric case was coded with a medical outcome of death.
Little is known about their side effects on the human body especially in large concentrations. Hemp-derived THC interacts with the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain and affects brain development in youth. It's addictive, more so in youth. And it's been linked to a range of mental illnesses, including psychosis, triggering long lasting mental health conditions. We are seeing the same life-long mental illness and suicides associated with hemp-derived cannabis extracts as we are with today’s high potency marijuana.
Due to the lack of strict testing requirements, hemp products have a greater frequency for and severity of product contamination compared with regulated marijuana products. Products may be contaminated with heavy metals and solvents (because of the way labs process the hemp), pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and microbiological contaminants.
Moreover, their ingredient labels can't be trusted. One cannabis consumer research company found 3/4 of the 51 products analyzed had higher regular (Delta-9) THC levels than advertised and permitted under federal law.
The concern surrounding hemp-derived cannabis products has been so severe that the FDA sent out this alert last year on Delta-8, 5 Things to Know about Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol – Delta-8 THC, that included these warnings:
Delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use and may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk
The FDA has received adverse event reports involving delta-8 THC-containing products
Delta-8 THC has psychoactive and intoxicating effects
Delta-8 THC products often involve use of potentially harmful chemicals to create the concentrations of delta-8 THC claimed in the marketplace
Delta-8 THC products should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
The 2018 Farm Bill
Federal passage of the 2018 Farm Bill made hemp-derived Delta-8, -9 and -10 edible and drinkable products legal nationwide. In this federal legislation, Congress created two different legal classifications of the cannabis plant: hemp and marijuana. It removed hemp from the list of federally controlled substances. In doing so, it allowed the cultivation and use of industrial hemp and all of its parts. It all sounded natural and good - hemp cotton in clothing, hemp seeds in foods - to help struggling farmers. It limited the amount of Delta-9 THC that could be present in hemp products to .3% on a dry-weight basis, which made it sound mild and safe. What could be wrong about all of that?
But it was complicated and poorly written. There were terms in the bill like "isomers" and "salts" that created loopholes. Not surprisingly, the cannabis industry got "chemically creative" and the THC limit proved meaningless. The result has been a crazy proliferation of psychoactive chemical variants in edibles/drinks that are loosely regulated and pose significant health dangers.
Some states have taken action and banned Delta-8 THC, including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Washington. But in some places the products are still on the shelves as a result of loopholes in state legislation, lack of a regulatory scheme and little, if any, enforcement. Other states like Virginia and Michigan decided to regulate Delta-8 like marijuana and require a state cannabis license to produce or sell it.
California wrote its own hemp bill (AB45), but it left a variety of issues unregulated, such as age limitations and restrictions on sale locations, maximum serving sizes,
THC concentration per serving size, and the number of servings per container. The California legislation further complicated the issue by making synthetically derived Delta-8 and other variants illegal. But the problem is that labs can't tell the difference between "naturally occurring" and "synthetically derived" compounds in a final product on the shelf. Products labeled as "natural" may actually be synthetically produced and therefore illegal.
Although some stores selling these products have chosen to require identification and only sell to 21 or older, this is not required by law, and doing so is at the discretion of individual store owners or salespeople.There are few regulatory protections and no age restrictions in place. In short, it's a mess.
Today, hemp is a multi-million dollar industry that is threatening to upend the regulated cannabis market in California and other states where cannabis has been legalized.
WHAT CAN BE DONE BY PARENTS AND COMMUNITY MEMBERS?
Discuss with your child. Let them know these products can contain very potent amounts of psychoactive material. Claims that they are "safe", or "been tested" shouldn't be trusted. They may contain harmful chemicals used to extract the THC compounds. These chemicals may be toxic.
Claims that certain hemp THC compounds are "milder" than other marijuana THC products are relative. Remember, Woodstock marijuana was 1-3% THC, not 80% THC. Just look at the potency levels on the packaging; they tell the true story about strength. It’s all highly questionable and the market is essentially unregulated. No one likes to be fooled and kids are no exception. Ask them if they've seen these products around and if they know how kids are accessing them.
Find out whether our kids are learning about hemp-derived products in schools. Contact your child's school Wellness Center if there is one. Reach out to counselors and teachers who educate students about substance use. At some schools, drug education is through Social Issues (high school) or Physical Education (middle school). If facts about these intoxicating hemp-derived products aren’t not being taught (which is likely because most adults are unaware of them), advocate for education on this important topic.
Help us locally! Be the Influence and Marin Residents for Public Health Cannabis Policies are working to identify where these products are being sold and are contacting local authorities. Be on the lookout for sales at gas station convenience stores, vape/smoke shops or places that sell CBD products.
Thanks for reading! Let's continue to work together to keep our children and our communities safe.