Consumers can purchase high-level THC products through loophole

A loophole, created by the federal Farm Bill, allows the legal selling of hemp products containing 1,000 mg or more of THC.
Photo illustration by Emily Nyberg
Photo illustration by Emily Nyberg
Emily Nyberg

Through a loophole in federal regulation, the sale of consumable hemp products containing intoxicating levels of the psychoactive substance in cannabis is making its way to Iowa consumers.

The recreational use of cannabis is illegal both in Iowa and federally, but the loophole in the most recent version of the farm bill, which authorizes federal subsidies and other programs for farmers every five years, left a loophole allowing the legal growth, sale, and consumption of hemp products.

Hemp is the less potent, male version of the cannabis plant that has less than 0.3 percent THC by weight.

With Republicans opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana, and drinks containing thousands of milligrams of the psychoactive part of the cannabis plant, THC, is on the market.

Lawmakers are at an impasse on a solution to taking the intoxicating products off the market.

Products containing less than 0.3 percent THC by volume are legally allowed to be sold under the loophole. In a 1-liter drink, it can contain up to 1,000 milligrams of THC. According to a study in the National Library of Medicine, anywhere from 5-20 milligrams of THC is intoxicating and can leave consumers impaired, meaning the 1-liter drinks contain more than 200 times the minimum intoxicating amount of THC.

Other cannabis products like gummies, candy, and other consumables can be found in Iowa retailers as well. They are legally sold as long as they contain less than 0.3 percent THC by volume. However, major concerns lie with liquid products that contain much higher amounts of THC.

Products like these are bought and sold in Iowa City stores, including 21 locations in Iowa City listed as retailers licensed to sell consumable hemp products.

Farm bill aimed to facilitate hemp production

The most recent version of the policy, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in December 2018, allowed the production and selling of hemp by farmers in all 50 states in the U.S. as long as it contains less than 0.3 percent of THC.

A nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report stated that this and other provisions in the bill were made to facilitate the growth, sale, and consumption of hemp. The report also stated that for any state or tribe to regulate the production of hemp, it must implement a plan that contains specific requirements. Those plans must then be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under their regulations.

Robin Pruisner, the hemp administrator at the Iowa Department of Agriculture, said hemp growers are held under specific rules. Under Iowa’s plan to regulate the production of hemp, farmers must apply and be accepted for a hemp license to grow the plant, as well as not having a controlled substance felony conviction.

Pruisner said the state allows the hemp to contain up to 0.39 percent of THC to buffer the uncertainty of measurement.

When farmers grow hemp, the levels of THC are tested by the Iowa Department of Agriculture when they harvest the crop. If the hemp crop has too much THC content, they are required to destroy it.

In an email statement to The Daily Iowan, Alex Carfrae, the public information officer of the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, wrote regulations allow for manufacturers to add fillers to the consumable hemp products of non-THC products that are aimed to increase overall volume.

These regulations fall under the farm bill after their addition to the 2018 version.

Currently, the reauthorization of the farm bill is stalled in Congress due to protracted political battles over choosing a House speaker to succeed U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and budget negotiations. The majority of the provisions under the farm bill expired in September, and the rest expire at the end of the year. This could impact programs that operate under the farm bill but do not stop regulations contained within the farm bill.

The products containing high levels of THC are being legally sold in Iowa because the hemp being grown contains no more than 0.39 percent of the psychoactive chemical. Iowa’s consumable hemp program allows for 0.39 percent by weight, but with additives by manufacturers, products can have more than 1,000 milligrams of THC.

Pruisner said she has always held a strong stance that in the state of Iowa, any product on the market should be safe and sanitary for consumers.

“If the industry wants to build a sustainable, long-term product that consumers are going to buy, I think consumers are going to get soured when they find something that is not what its label is supposed to be, or potentially, contain all this other garbage,” Pruisner said. “So, without the consistent, minimum, regulatory oversight at a federal level, this is the chaos that we get into with everybody trying to beat the system and get away with everything they can possibly get away with.”

University of Iowa public health professor Brian Kaskie said these high-level THC products can be dangerous when the consumer isn’t regulating how much they consume.

“When the products come in with high THC, it’s like having a drink with a high amount of alcohol,” Kaskie said. “That should be a signal to the person that you shouldn’t have 10 of these because this is a high THC product or a low THC product. You don’t want to have 10 shots of something that’s 80-proof as opposed to having 10 light beers that are pretty minimal in alcohol. People may not be able to self-regulate how much they should take and then that could lead to problems.”

Kaskie said those consuming these legal products containing high levels of THC must be cautious of the products as they are not fully regulated.

Lawmakers work on solutions

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called for the supporters of the production of industrial hemp in the 2018 farm bill to find a way to close this loophole.

In an email statement to the DI, Grassley said legislators were “promised” that industrial hemp could not be used to mimic the effects of marijuana.

“I was skeptical at the time and voiced my concerns,” Grassley said. “It turns out my skepticism was well-placed. As a result of this policy, anyone, regardless of their age, can purchase hemp-derived THC that is otherwise federally banned in other forms. It’s incumbent on those who championed industrial hemp to take action to address these unintended consequences that allow the sale of intoxicating THC.”

Iowa Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, ranking member of the House Health and Human Services committee, criticized the House for the delayed reevaluation of the federal farm bill that has allowed this loophole to continue.

“[Congressional lawmakers] have not gotten to it because the House is in total disarray and has no leadership,” Wessel-Kroeschell said. “It’s a very important bill to Iowans because it does provide a lot for our agriculture. It provides food for people who can’t afford it in the span of grants, and it’s just a very important bill, but it has not been reauthorized and I don’t know if there’s any intention to close that loophole.”

Former Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, expressed his frustration with the products on shelves with high levels of THC and no national regulations.

“The difference with this federal stuff, the hemp plant which has THC qualities, there’s no regulation of what people are actually selling,” Bolkcom said. “If there’s policy going forward that needs to be put in place, the Food and Drug Administration needs to regulate these products nationally.”

For the loopholes to be properly closed and THC products to be regulated, Congress must work to reauthorize the federal farm bill, and Bolkcom said they will most likely want to keep allowing farmers to grow hemp.

“I think people would want to keep that going,” Bolkcom said of hemp production. “They could regulate it and say that THC is illegal in that [hemp] plant … You can’t have very much of it.”

Pruisner said to close this loophole causing the legal sale of consumable hemp products with high levels of THC in them, there must be strong federal oversight.

“You can see that regulation all over the place whether it’s the sale of meat across state lines or the sale of dairy,” Pruisner said. “If everyone is not at least adhering to some type of minimum standards, it’s a free-for-all because there’s always a state somewhere that is going to let people get away with it.”

The DI contacted State Rep. Devon Wood, R-New Market, who referred The Daily Iowan to the state’s hemp administrator and the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.

The DI contacted Iowa Sen. Mark Costello, R-Imogene, the vice chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee who declined to comment.

The DI contacted Iowa House and Senate leadership and only received a response from Senate Leadership referring to Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee who could not be reached by phone or email.

The DI also contacted Senate Agriculture committee Republican leadership Dawn Driscoll, R-Williamsburg, and Ken Roozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, by phone and did not receive a response.

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