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Time To Regulate Hemp-Derived Cannabinoids More Like Marijuana, Physician Advocacy Group Says



A group of physicians who support drug policy reform say in a new position paper on the widespread accessibility of delta-8 THC and certain other cannabinoids derived from federally legal hemp that further regulation of the lesser-known chemicals is crucial in order to protect public health.

“Our understanding of these compounds is limited,” says the paper, from the group Doctors for Drug Policy Reform (D4DPR), a nonprofit that generally advocates for the legal regulation of drugs such as marijuana rather than prohibition. “Many have never been observed in nature and their toxicology is unknown.”

“Our stance at D4DPR,” it says, “is that all intoxicating cannabinoids should be subject to a regulatory framework to ensure public safety.”

Bryon Adinoff, the group’s president, told Marijuana Moment that the paper is intended to help bridge the policy gap between hemp—legalized federally through the 2018 Farm Bill—and marijuana, which remains federally illegal.

“The reason we got into this problem is by making this artificial distinction between two plants, hemp and cannabis, that are identical plants. One has low amounts of THC and one doesn’t,” Adinoff said. “That’s what got us into this mess.”

“If we said, ‘OK, we’re going to regulate intoxicating compounds, and we’re going to do them all the same, then we’d never have run into this problem,” he added. “I think we need a different regulatory process for cannabis that can be used for other plant medicines, such as psychedelics, as well.”

The paper recommends implementing “a regulatory framework for all intoxicating cannabinoids, regardless of their source (hemp, cannabis, laboratory synthesis, or via bioreactors/fermentation).”

It warns that attempting to prohibit the new cannabinoids would be counterproductive.

Regulators, the paper says, must “recognize that an outright ban on minor cannabinoids (rather than their regulatory control) will result in a continuation of the drug war, leading to negative outcomes on public health.”

Such regulations would include establishing licensing requirements for businesses selling the products, taxation to fund oversight and health initiatives, prohibition of sales or marketing to children, the requirement of childproof containers, clear labeling of intoxicating effects and mandatory lab testing for purity and potency, the paper says.

“As many of these cannabinoids are newly described and difficult to detect,” it adds, “research into toxicology, clinical safety, and laboratory testing standards must be conducted.”

As the paper notes, delta-8 THC—as opposed to the delta-9 THC in marijuana—”remains legal and unregulated, with limited testing and taxation, lacking warnings about its intoxicating effects, without dosing limits, and easily accessible to minors.” On top of that, “numerous new ‘minor cannabinoids’ have been synthesized from CBD, including ∆-10 THC, tetrahydrocannabinol THCO), hexahydrocannabinol HHC, tetrahydrocannabiphoral THCP, and tetrahydrocannabivarin THCV… Our understanding of these compounds is limited; many have never been observed in nature and their toxicology is unknown.”

“We don’t get our lettuce like this,” Adinoff said. “Most of the things we buy are regulated, and overall we come out ahead… We’re not seeing really bad outcomes, but I still think we’d be better with a regulated system.”

D4DPR recommends that all states without a regulatory framework for minor cannabinoids to align them “with those in place for cannabis.” For states without either medical marijuana or legal adult-use cannabis, the group recommends that delta-9 THC “should be included in this framework,” a gentle call for an end to prohibition.

At the federal level, the group says cannabis ought to be descheduled “to eliminate the confusion between hemp and cannabis and establish a minimal regulatory structure that can be adapted by individual states.”

The paper comes on the heels of a letter from attorneys general from 20 states and Washington, D.C. earlier this year that asked congressional leaders to take action on intoxicating hemp products. Federal lawmakers should amend the definition of hemp, they wrote, and clarify that states can take their own measures to regulate the plant and its derivative products.

Only a handful of states have taken steps to independently regulate intoxicating hemp products—among them, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Florida and South Dakota.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D), who signed the new letter, said in a press release that “our children deserve better.”

“The 2018 Farm Bill, however well-intentioned, created a loophole that has led to the proliferation of products, often containing synthesized cannabinoids, that are more intoxicating than legal and regulated cannabis products,” he said. “These products often take the form of candy and are designed to appeal to young people and children. California prohibits intoxicating cannabinoids in hemp products, whether naturally derived or synthetic.”

Congressional researchers cautioned last November that varying policy priorities among industry stakeholders could make the task of updating the federal Farm Bill more difficult.

Regardless of the strict legal definition dividing marijuana and hemp, what’s available on the market is harder to definitively distinguish. A recently published analysis of smokable hemp products by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) found that the vast majority of samples–about 93 percent—contained more than 0.3 percent THC, meaning they in fact qualified as federally illegal marijuana.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also put out a solicitation in 2022 seeking portable marijuana analyzers to quickly identify cannabinoid profiles and help distinguish between marijuana and hemp.

USDA last month announced a new hemp “roadmap,” which includes a call for a public–private hemp consortium to streamline research into hemp products. The agency also recently approved a new genetically modified version of hemp that does not produce THC or CBD but is designed to have higher levels of the cannabinoid CBG. It’s at least the second type of genetically modified hemp to get the OK after another modified plant, which produces lower levels of THC and CBC, was approved in October.

Read the full D4DPR position paper below:

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Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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