A national group of state cannabis regulators — including Minnesota's director of medical marijuana — wants the federal government to crack down on the proliferation of hemp-derived THC and CBD and "set a minimum standard" for the safety of the products.
"It will be essential to set regulations for hemp-derived cannabinoid products," reads a letter to Congress that the Cannabis Regulators Association sent earlier this month, "and to ensure that no additional loopholes are exploited."
The letter was signed by Chris Tholkes, director of the Office of Medical Cannabis at the Minnesota Department of Health and treasurer of the regulator group, known as CANNRA.
"This is a call of state regulators saying, 'Help us,'" Tholkes said in an interview Wednesday. "Help us set a floor and ensure that customers across the U.S. have some standard protections for these products."
The 2018 farm bill legalized hemp and created a market for intoxicating (THC) and non-intoxicating (CBD) products nationwide.
"The language of the bill has inadvertently resulted in a thriving market for intoxicating cannabinoid products that are included (or claim to be included) within the definition of 'hemp,'" CANNRA wrote.
Under federal law, hemp and marijuana are the same plant, except that hemp has less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC. Edibles, vapes and other products that meet that definition are now widely available online and in stores.
A patchwork of state laws have popped up to compensate for the legal gray area, including Minnesota's unique approach to regulating THC edibles and drinks first adopted last year and refined with the marijuana legalization law passed this year.
"What Minnesota is trying to do is a good example — set parameters and not squash entrepreneurial startups and creativity in the business space," Tholkes said. "We want to ensure a consumer who walks into the store is able to know what's in a product and to understand if something is intoxicating."
Though the CANNRA letter says state laws and agencies should continue to have control over their markets, the regulators are asking for the FDA or a similar agency to be given rulemaking authority over hemp-derived products.
"Enforcement of state-based regulations by state agencies is difficult when hemp-derived products are produced out of state and shipped directly to consumers across state lines through the mail," the letter said.
The CANNRA proposal was met with opposition by some in the hemp industry that worry the regulations could hurt farmers and small businesses.
"The language they're proposing, the definitions they're proposing — we have concerns with that," said Dave Ladd, president of the Minnesota Industrial Hemp Association. "We want to ensure ultimately the farmers aren't hurt, Main Street isn't hurt."
Steven Brown, owner of Minnesota-based retailer Nothing But Hemp, said a federal policy ought to look like Minnesota's approach: A 21+ age limit, child-proof packaging, low (5 milligram) limits on THC dosage plus allowing naturally derived cannabinoids like CBD, CBG and CBN.
"I believe that hemp cannabinoid businesses represent genuine competition for both major players in the marijuana industry and medical providers," Brown said. "In my view, the focus on regulating small hemp businesses stems from a desire to protect the interests of larger marijuana corporations."
Ladd said he welcomes competition but urges Congress to maintain a "level playing field."
"Here in Minnesota we have dosage limits, and there should be guardrails and accountability for bad actors," Ladd said. "We should retain the definition, 0.3%, and we view CBD and those naturally extracted products as co-products. They're not synthetics, and there is a value on the other end."
Tholkes said the proposal, which is being pitched for the 2023 Farm Bill, should be seen as a starting point.
"I understand the fears from a business standpoint, absolutely, and we try to balance that with education and conversations and by applying the lens of public health and safety," she said.
Passage of any changes to national hemp laws would require Republican support, which is not a given considering past opposition to cannabis legalization. The 2018 legalization of hemp had bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Trump, however, and a cannabis banking bill advanced in the Senate on Wednesday.
Tholkes has not said whether she intends to apply to be director of Minnesota's Office of Cannabis Management. Gov. Tim Walz says he is now looking for a seasoned regulator after his first pick, a business owner, stepped aside a day after her appointment.