By Lucas Thomae
Stoneos instead of Oreos? Doweedos instead of Doritos?
State lawmakers, law enforcement officers and federal agencies are taking steps to get these familiar-looking edibles and other delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) products out of the hands of middle school and high school students.
With a combination of kid-friendly packaging and no age restrictions for purchasing the products, they say it’s far too easy for children to grab a package of Stoneos or Doweedos and get high off of legal cannabis that often is in wrappers similar to those used for cookies, chips and other popular after-school snacks.
THC is the psychoactive compound that causes the “high” that comes from smoking, vaping or consuming cannabis. Delta-9 is the principal form of THC found in the plant, but other variants, including delta-8, also naturally occur in the plant in small doses. The compound cannabidiol (CBD), which also comes from the cannabis plant, does not have psychoactive properties but is a common ingredient in products that promote relaxation, better sleep and pain relief.
Manufacturers and retailers of legal cannabis quickly moved to stock the shelves of tobacco and vape stores across the country with delta-8 THC and cannabidiol products after the 2018 federal Farm Bill legalized hemp. North Carolina soon amended its hemp laws to match the federal guidelines. For the past five years, these legal THC and CBD products have gone largely unregulated in North Carolina, without even a legal age limit in place.
North Carolina state Reps. Wayne Sasser (R-Albemarle) and Jeffrey McNeely (R-Stony Point) would like to change that. The pair have championed House Bill 563 this legislative session, which would put an end to what they call the “Wild West” of hemp products.
“Parents call me and say, ‘You know, these kids are coming home high as a kite, you can’t talk to them, so on. Do something about it,’” Sasser told NC Health News on June 21.
The synthetic cannabinoid industry, which sold nearly $1 billion worth of delta-8 THC products over the past two years, operates in a legal gray zone. Marijuana and hemp are two varieties of the same plant, cannabis sativa, although the two are regulated differently.
Marijuana is illegal federally and in North Carolina, but the 2018 Farm Bill made it legal to grow and sell hemp so long as the plant has a concentration of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) of less than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.
Hemp product manufacturers soon realized that definition meant that they could sell products containing delta-8 THC, delta-10 THC and even delta-9 THC so long as the concentration falls under the legal limit.
Such “novel cannabinoids” are often artificially produced by chemically converting CBD or delta-9 THC that has been extracted from legally grown hemp. The only way to know whether a THC product falls under the legal limit is by having it tested in a lab.
There is no federally mandated age limit to purchase these products, nor have they been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Legislation introduced, but future unclear
Sasser and McNeely are the primary sponsors of the Regulate Hemp-Derived Consumables & Kratom Act, which they say is intended to limit minors’ access to these products.
Their proposed legislation takes a similar approach to getting delta-8 and other hemp products out of the hands of high school and middle school students as state and federal agencies have used in recent years to tamp down on the appeal of e-cigarettes.
In North Carolina, state Attorney General Josh Stein sued Juul, an e-cigarette company that used to be a favorite of young people. The company settled with the state for $40 million in July 2021. Juul agreed to abandon marketing and advertising campaigns designed to attract younger users to the flavored pods.
The state lawmakers looking to put more limits on delta-8 and other hemp products have worked on the bill for several years now. They said that they worked alongside officials from Alcohol Law Enforcement, a state law enforcement agency that’s part of the state Department of Public Safety, to draft the legislation.
However, the agency distanced itself from the legislation in an email to NC Health News, stating that “ALE has not introduced/drafted/support any state legislation to regulate D8, Kratom, and other hemp-derived products. ALE is a law enforcement agency that enforces the state’s laws enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly.”
In its current form, House Bill 563 would not ban delta-8 THC or other novel cannabinoids.
Instead, the bill would require manufacturers, distributors and retail sellers of hemp-derived consumables to be licensed in North Carolina. Every batch of hemp-derived consumable products would need to be tested by a third-party laboratory to confirm that the THC concentrations fall under legal limits.
Additionally, the bill would set the age limit for buying the products at 18 or older. The proposed legislation also would prohibit the products on school grounds and set forth guidelines for packaging and advertising that is less catered toward minors. The bill would allocate $2.5 million for Alcohol Law Enforcement to implement and enforce these regulations.
The bill would apply not only to brick-and-mortar establishments in the state, but also to online retailers who want to sell their products in North Carolina. These online retailers, many of which are not based in North Carolina, will ship THC products to consumers’ doorsteps so long as they click a button confirming that they are at least 21 years of age — something that’s easy for a minor to get around.
With this requirement, McNeely hopes to put that system under greater scrutiny.
“If [online retailers] do it without a license, there’s gonna be a pretty good penalty. So I think it’s pretty cheap to get in the game. It’s pretty expensive to buy your way out of the problem,” McNeely told NC Health News in June.
House Bill 563 seems to be stalled late in the legislative session. The last action taken on the bill happened on July 12, when it was re-referred to the House Finance Committee.
There are still disagreements over what should and should not be included in the bill.
The North Carolina Department of Justice sent a letter to McNeely and Sasser to express concerns about certain sections of House Bill 563 after the approval of a revised bill on June 21. The department recommended that the bill raise the legal age limit to purchase THC products to 21 in order to fall in line with federal alcohol and tobacco laws and sharpen its advertising restrictions.
“Instead of rushing this well-intended but flawed legislation through the General Assembly in the waning days of the 2023 long session, DOJ recommends the bill sponsors consider working with public health experts, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to craft stronger legislation for the General Assembly to consider in the 2024 short session,” the letter read.
Feds and ALE target child-friendly packaging
The Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration also have taken action recently to curb the appeal of hemp products with packaging that they say is marketed towards children.
In July, the agencies sent joint cease and desist letters to six companies across the country, which they say sold delta-8 THC products in packaging that was nearly identical to popular snack foods like Doritos chips and Nerds candy.
“Marketing edible THC products that can be easily mistaken by children for regular foods is reckless and illegal,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in an online statement.
One of the companies that received the letter was NC Hemp Shoppe in Raleigh. The owner of NC Hemp Shoppe did not respond to a request for comment.
Alcohol Law Enforcement has also been involved in several searches and seizures of illegal THC products in tobacco and vape shops across the state.
“As a result of community complaints and requests from local law enforcement, NC ALE has conducted investigations into the sale of products which were deemed to be controlled substances. Some of these products, which were deemed unlawful, were being marketed to the public as legal hemp-derived products,” W.A. Happoldt, the agency’s public information officer, said in an email to NC Health News.
In May, Alcohol Law Enforcement and local law enforcement charged the owner of four tobacco and vape shops in Columbus County and accused him of selling products that contained more than 0.3 percent delta-9 THC.
Similar operations have taken place in Oakboro, High Point and Morganton over the past two years.
Happoldt’s email said that most of the products that were seized contained a concentration of delta-9 THC that was over the legal limit. He confirmed that “a large portion” of the investigations were connected to the consumption of these products by minors.
Alcohol Law Enforcement worked alongside the NC Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force during some of those operations to combat what they called “counterfeit trademarks on products for sale that were marketed as legal hemp-derived consumables.”
That’s referring to the knock-off products that resemble popular snack foods.
“ALE will continue to be part of an overall strategy to keep our children safe, while parents should be aware of these products and the potential for harm,” Happoldt said. “Parents should be aware many of these products are marketed towards kids and often mimic actual candy products.”