Dried hemp plants
Dried hemp plants. Photo via Pixabay

In 2016, Proposition 64 legalized the personal possession and cultivation of marijuana in California for people 21 and older, by a 57%-43% margin. Since then, the state’s legal cannabis industry has become a multibillion-dollar behemoth, with legal cannabis sales of $5.3 billion in 2022. 

The industry is highly regulated to make sure that businesses operate safely, products are free of contaminants, and labeled to inform purchasers. Care is taken to ensure cannabis is kept away from children, partly through oversight from the California Department of Cannabis Control.  

Despite achieving multibillion-dollar status, California’s legal cannabis industry faces stiff competition from illegal sales, which are now roughly twice the volume of legal ones. That’s because there are relatively few legal cannabis shops in California — only 2 per 100,000 people. 

Prop. 64 let local officials decide whether to permit recreational cannabis sales, and about two-thirds of California cities have not “opted in.” So in many localities in California you can’t buy marijuana legally. Not surprisingly, those looking to make a profit have found ways to get around California’s cannabis regulations.  

One player in the cannabis market with an increasing (and worrisome) impact is “intoxicating hemp.” Marijuana and hemp are the same plant, but marijuana contains a higher amount of the intoxicating substance delta-9 THC

Without the promise of the effects of THC for both medically viable reasons and recreation, hemp plants were traditionally used for food, clothing, and industrial applications.  But that changed when Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, leaving a confusing loophole that’s led to a healthcare crisis, particularly for our youth. 

The language in farm bill has been interpreted to mean that any hemp-derived product with less than 0.3% THC in its final form is legal. Make a 70-gram brownie out of hemp containing just under 0.3% THC, and you get 21 times more THC than you can get in California’s regulated cannabis market. 

Furthermore, with some chemistry, innovative hemp manufacturers can create an alphabet soup of chemically synthesized cannabinoids that can get you high, like delta-8 THC, THC-P, and THC-O. The Drug Enforcement Administration has pushed back and classified two such compounds as dangerous Schedule I substances. Still, the regulations on synthetic cannabinoids made from compounds that naturally occur in hemp remain overwhelmingly unenforced.    

Why should we care? The key is that there are provisions in Prop. 64 that protect our children, but intoxicating hemp products that don’t fall under its jurisdiction are packaged in ways to target minors and can be easily sold to our youth. 

Mary Baum, senior program director with SAY San Diego’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and other Drugs Prevention Program, explains how this loophole poses a threat.

“Smoke shops are hidden in plain sight with little or no regulation or oversight and open dangerously close to schools,” she said. “Today, in the city of San Diego alone, there are over 50 smoke shops that sell unregulated, concentrated, intoxicating, and/or synthesized cannabinoids.”

“Federal, state, and local officials must work together to hold these bad actors accountable,” she said. “Reasonable legislation would prohibit a series of artificially derived toxic cannabinoids, address language and advertising that is attractive to children, create buffer zones between smoke shops and youth-sensitive community spaces, and impose restrictions denying smoke shop entry to anyone under the age of 21.”  

Lara Gates, deputy director of the Cannabis Business Division of the city of San Diego, is also sounding the alarm.

“The increasing prevalence of intoxicating hemp that is being sold in San Diego retail shops is very concerning,” she said. “It undermines the legal cannabis market as it does not have to comply with the same restrictions, such as appropriate distance from minor-oriented facilities, testing and taxation.”  

When intoxicating hemp products are accessible to minors, our children’s health is jeopardized. Dr. Roneet Lev is an addiction specialist and emergency medicine physician at Scripps Mercy Hospital who is on the frontlines of overdose emergencies and recognizes the dangers of intoxicating hemp.

 “We should be concerned about intoxicating substances poisoning our children disguised as hemp,” she said, pointing out that while the FDA has issued a warning about delta-8 THC products, “the other hemp products have not been studied or proven safe. People are being used as lab experiments for profit.” 

In 2014, the e-cigarette Juul didn’t exist.  By 2018, nearly 1 in 10 teenagers aged 15-17 were active Juul users. We were caught flat-footed when it came to Juul, but our children can’t afford to have us make the same mistake regarding recognizing and acting on the threat to their health caused by intoxicating hemp.

Flavia Mangan Colgan is a former political commentator and news correspondent who has appeared on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. She lives in La Jolla and works in the nonprofit sector.