It's legal to get high on hemp as Louisiana regulators struggle with CBD industry
Louisiana's exploding hemp industry, with CBD stores popping up on every street corner, has outpaced the state's regulators in producing legal products with THC levels potent enough to produce a high in consumers.
Though hemp's THC levels are much lower than in cannabis cousin marijuana, retailers have produced products that stack multiple servings of the 8-milligram THC limit in one product like edible gummies or chocolate bars.
THC is the chemical that creates the high. Leafly, a website focused on cannabis use and education, says a 5-milligram dose is "when a high begins to set in for many new or inconsistent consumers."
The most embarrassing misstep for the Louisiana Department of Health was approving vape pens even though state law makes it illegal for CDB stores to sell hemp products related to inhalation.
Last week the Louisiana House Health and Welfare Committee held an oversight hearing for agency officials to explain why they need to make an emergency rule change that would remove vape pens from the department's approved products list.
Stephen Russo, the health department's top attorney, testified during the hearing that the agency "inadvertently" removed language regulating "dosage vehicles" that would ban vape pens from being eligible.
The agency approves products by examining product labels rather than an image of the product. Russo said the label for the vape pens met the criteria with label language that included "not for inhalation."
Lawmakers in the committee found the explanation preposterous, which Russo conceded.
"So if you put a label on the side of a car that said 'not for driving' and somebody goes and drives it (he can do it)?" Republican Monroe Rep. Michael Echols said.
"It's non-sensical," Russo admitted.
"I still do not understand how if in every piece of legislation, it was prohibited for inhalation by some kind of way vape pens crawled in," said Republican Kenner Rep. Joe Stagni. "Business will always try to outmaneuver regulators to make a profit."
"It's going to sound silly," Russo said. "I'm not going to run from it. We got into this pickle with vape pens because we took out the dosage vehicles (language)."
Russo also talked about retailers packaging multiple single doses, or servings, in one product, noting that conventional products like soft drinks also place multiple servings in one bottle but list nutritional ingredients as a single serving.
As an example, he said an official with the Louisiana Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told him some retailers were stacking three chocolate bars, each with 8 milligrams of THC, into one package "and marketing them as if you really want to get high bust these three and basically you get 24 milligrams."
Mike Vidrine, the health department's sanitarian services director, said the agency hasn't been able to keep up with retailers' efforts to push the envelope on new products.
"We're trying to get to a good spot where these products aren't potent," Vidrine said. "The first go-round it seems like industry found a way around us. Industry finds a way around our regulations sometimes."
Russo said the agency has two full-time employees who review labels and two more in training.
That left Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who since 2019 has authored the four primary laws ushering the hemp industry into the state, clearly exasperated.
Schexnayder, who said there are more than 3,000 CBD retailers operating in Louisiana, said the agency hasn't hired enough personnel to properly regulate the emerging industry despite the Legislature appropriating specific funding to expand staff.
"Vape is not the only thing out there above the limit," he said.
But lawmakers unanimously expressed concern for business owners who are constantly having to adjust on the fly with ongoing rule changes.
"I don't want folks going around high, but you can't keep changing (the rules); it's not good for business," said Democratic Vidalia lawmaker Travis Johnson.
"You have to treat our businesses with some respect," Echols said. "There needs to be a fair process."
Schexnayder convinced the committee to postpone any approval of emergency rule changes for at least three weeks when agency officials will come before House Health again to propose adjustments.
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: It's legal to get high on hemp in Louisiana as regulators can't keep up