With marijuana still illegal to sell for recreational use, hemp-derived products are filling the void and catching the attention of state policymakers. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
The leaders of four Virginia health care groups are urging Gov. Glenn Youngkin to sign legislation that would impose strict new limits on hemp-derived products that contain intoxicating amounts of THC, the compound in marijuana that gets users high, as well as potential fines on retailers that sell them.
In the letter dated Thursday, the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, Medical Society of Virginia, Virginia College of Emergency Physicians and Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics called the bills “critically important to public health and safety.”
“They are especially important to ensure the well-being of children, many of whom have been poisoned after accessing and ingesting unregulated delta-8-THC, delta-9-THC, and other synthetic marijuana-like products,” the coalition wrote. “As healthcare workers, our members have been alarmed by the recent surge of cases involving children who consumed these products.”
Data from Virginia hospitals collected by the VHHA shows a sizable uptick in pediatric emergency room visits related to cannabis ingestion. There were 369 such visits in the third quarter of 2021. The number grew to 583 visits in the second quarter of 2022, the most recent period for which data was available. The aggregate data doesn’t include specific information on the types of THC products driving the spike.
Youngkin has already signaled his support for closing what critics say are easily exploitable loopholes in the state’s cannabis laws. Retail marijuana sales for recreational use remain banned in Virginia, but smoke shops and convenience stores have started offering a variety of unregulated alternatives — often derived from hemp — that can give users a similar but usually milder high.
The identical bills require all businesses selling “an industrial hemp extract or food containing an industrial hemp extract” to have a permit from the state. Under the pending law, those products could only contain up to 0.3% THC and two milligrams of THC per package. The legislation also includes more stringent labeling rules disclosing what goes into each product. Businesses that violate the proposed rules would be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per day.
The legislation, which was approved with bipartisan support, has drawn strong pushback from the hemp industry.
In a letter earlier this week, the Virginia Cannabis Association criticized the proposal as overbroad, saying it threatened to “destroy a thriving industry.”
“The result will be the elimination of thousands of jobs and the loss of billions of dollars in economic impact while strengthening the black market for out of state unregulated cannabinoids,” the association wrote in a letter to Youngkin Tuesday.
Specifically, the Cannabis Association raised concerns that the legislation’s broad definition of THC coupled with the provision restricting THC to two milligrams per package could end up outlawing non-intoxicating CBD products.
“Used mainly for pain relief, these non-intoxicating and non-addictive products are an acceptable alternative for many people who don’t want to use opioids or marijuana,” the association wrote.
The industry group also objected to a proposed rule requiring the addition of bittering substances to any cannabis products not meant to be ingested, arguing state regulators lack the expertise to figure out which bittering agents “are safe and appropriate for use in lip balms, eye and skin care products and vaginal or rectal suppositories.”
Without naming names, the letter from the health care groups criticized “misleading and inaccurate claims” by opponents of the bills.
“Sellers who violate these common-sense provisions should face civil penalties,” the health care organizations said in their letter.
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