A top Louisiana lawmaker is feuding with state health officials, blaming them for confusion that has led to the legalization of hemp products that can get people high. The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) has offered a proposal to address the issue, but some question whether it’s really necessary.
House Republican Speaker Clay Schexnayder said the health department has failed to implement it the legislation he championed to establish the state’s hemp consumption industry. The controversy involves over-the-counter products containing delta-9 THC, a type of psychoactive compound found in cannabis.
As one of the fastest growing plants on earth, hemp is used primarily for industrial and commercial goods such as paper, rope, textiles, paint, clothing, biodegradable plastics, insulation, animal feed and biofuel. In recent years, edible hemp and its byproduct cannabidiol oil (CBD) have become popular natural remedies for a variety of ailments.
Louisiana’s consumer hemp industry includes growers, manufacturers and retailers of various hemp products, each of which must receive approval from the health department before they can sell to the public. It is an industry that has grown very quickly and created a new group of wealthy business owners.
Lawmakers on the House Health and Welfare Committee heard from several business owners Wednesday who admitted they’ve made millions in hemp revenue and are now worried the state will pull their products from the shelves.
The saga began when John Williams, a major beer industry lobbyist, sent out a mass email to lawmakers in November with an alarming subject line: “Recreational THC is now legal in Louisiana.” Williams later admitted to The Advocate that he opposed the legislation that created the hemp industry.
When Schexnayder, a Republican, pushed his 2022 hemp bill, he assured conservative colleagues would not legalize recreational products that can get people high, according to The Advocate. However, small vape shops and head shops across the state now carry a variety of cheap and over-the-counter cannabis products with more than enough THC to cause intoxication.
Williams’ email set in motion a series of events.
Schexnayder called on the health department to explain why it approved products that can get people high, and the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control sent a memo pledging to remove any illegal products from retail sites.
LDH officials have admitted that the agency mistakenly approved about 230 products it shouldn’t have, specifically vape cartridges that some manufacturers disguised as CBD tinctures.
Placing the blame
Lawmakers scheduled Wednesday’s meeting specifically to consider a proposed LDH emergency rule to remedy the issue that could eliminate many of the products the agency previously approved. Health department attorney Steve Russo read the rule at the start of the hearing, but minimal time after that was spent reviewing the actual language in the proposal.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives repeatedly attacked the health department and accused LDH officials of putting small businesses at risk by misinterpreting his legislation. He said health officials mistakenly approved not 230 but nearly 400 illegal products, claiming his legislation did not allow any hemp product with more than 8 milligrams of THC. However, studies they found even that amount can cause intoxication.
About a dozen hemp business owners attended the meeting to explain how the proposed emergency rule could cost them money. Some blamed the state health department and thanked Schexnayder for staying in touch with them throughout the turmoil. Monroe hemp store owner Jason Garsee accused LDH of “bringing every entrepreneur in the state to the knees.”
Others, citing statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there is no need for an emergency rule because the effects of THC are hardly a threat to public health compared to the 140,000 people who die each year from alcohol consumption. .
But suggestions that anything other than the health department could be to blame — such as the speaker’s legislation — were met with swift rebuttal. When Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, asked if LDH’s proposal would fix parts of the legislation that were “a little loose,” Schexnayder disputed Miller’s characterization.
“The legislation was not cheap,” the speaker said. “The legislation was where it needed to be… It wasn’t intended for him [LDH] to come back and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to take this gum and break it into six pieces and sell it with 100 milligrams in it.’ None of that was ever on the table.”
Schexnayder’s retort prompted Miller to retract his comment and assure that he meant “no disrespect to the bill, Mr. Speaker.”
Schexnayder also criticized the press for scrutinizing his legislation and suggested there were ulterior motives behind such coverage.
“The law has nothing to do with it,” Schexnayder said. “LDH was to blame from the beginning. They accepted him at the table. But still, to sell a story or get likes on Facebook or get likes on Twitter, that’s what they do.”
What is in the law?
Miller’s initial characterization that Schexnayder’s bill was “a little loose” referred to language in the legislation that doesn’t exactly match what Schexnayder said he intended, which was to ban products with multiple servings of 8 milligrams of THC.
According to lEGISLATION, “The total THC in a product must not exceed eight milligrams per serving.” Many manufacturers, as well as LDH officials, read that to mean that each individual serving is limited to 8 milligrams. The legislation did not limit the number of servings a product could have.
Marksville hemp store owner Rashad Hamideh testified that not one person at the previous committee meeting bothered to read the definition of “service” within Schexnayder’s legislation.
As Hamideh pointed out, the legislation states: “”Serving” means the total amount of individual units or the amount of liquid of a product recommended by the manufacturer to be consumed at a single time.”
Blaine Jennings, who owns Virgin Hemp Farms in Lafayette, noted Schexnayder’s bill, which became Louisiana law in August, gives producers some leeway with the number of servings in a product.
“While this is a big issue at hand, it is within the law that we can do this,” Jennings said.
The law also requires that servings be clearly identified in one of two ways: the package contains a measuring device that measures single servings, or the product clearly enables a consumer to determine when a single serving has been consumed.
Hamideh and other business owners testified that they spent massive amounts of money making sure that the gum, tablets and other products were marked or divided in a way that made them easily broken into 8 milligram portions.
Another provision in the speaker’s law states that products must “clearly indicate the amount of THC per serving, serving size and servings per package.”
Alysha Hickman, a St. John’s manufacturer of hemp products. Tammany Parish, told lawmakers that her company invested in a new hemp gum that contains two servings for a total of 10 milligrams of THC. She said LDH approved the gum in September and now worries she will be stuck with a product she can no longer sell. When asked, she admitted to lawmakers that some people could raise their gums.
Schexnayder said such products should never have been approved, though it’s unclear exactly how LDH’s proposed emergency rule would fix the problem. LDH spokesman Kevin Litten said the proposal has not yet been published.
In an attempt to explain the proposition, Russo gave an example of a canned drink containing 16 milligrams of THC and labeled as two servings.
“Currently this would be a legal or gray area product,” Russo said. “But this [rule] it would make it clear that that drink – that single can – can only have one serving.”
Nothing in Schexnayder’s law specifically states that hemp products cannot have multiple servings or that the sum of servings of a product must not exceed 8 milligrams of THC. The spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Even if the state bans hemp tires that have more than 8 milligrams of THC, the speaker’s law does not limit the number of products a person can buy, so people will still be able to use larger amounts of THC simply buying more gum.
Hamideh told lawmakers there is no need for an emergency rule, saying there was nothing wrong with the legislation or the original LDH rules. He said LDH should simply withdraw products that do not have easily separable metering devices or services.
Most other business owners echoed similar sentiments and said their products aren’t hurting anyone. One owner compared the current calls from the beer lobby to lobbying pressure from the start forbidden hemp nearly a century ago because it competed with cotton and lumber.
The committee deferred taking any action on the rule.
Committee member, Rep. Joseph Stagni, R-Kenner, said he is not overly concerned about the situation.
“That’s not unusual, especially in an industry that has evolved and taken off like this industry has in the state,” Stagni said. “This is not adversarial. That’s the process.”
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