When the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law last December, it removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The idea, of course, was to legally unchain this useful crop from its biological cousin, the kind of cannabis that gets you high, and thus open up opportunities for farmers who grow it, as well as manufacturers who process and employ it in a wide range of goods, from textiles to skincare products.
In doing so, however, the bill also ushered in questions regarding its production and sales, particularly in relation to the presence of cannabidiol, or CBD, in food items—from donuts to snack bars to whipped cream—that can come from hemp. These questions have yet to be resolved, and now there are other hemp products piling on to enforcement and public health concerns.
Among them is smokable hemp.
In the United States, “hemp” is defined as Cannabis sativa L. with a THC concentration that does not exceed 0.3 percent. In other words, smoking it will, at most, give someone a pleasant, albeit fleeting, buzz, but not cause a high.
Pre-rolls and flower with this little THC, perhaps, weren’t top of mind for regulators crafting the Farm Bill. As a result, these products are not subject to any particular federal regulations. And when it comes to hemp oversight at the state level, there’s a very mixed bag.
One case in point: in New York, where medical cannabis products are permitted but not in smokable form, hemp buds can be found throughout the city’s bodegas, in addition to a full “CBD dispensary” on St. Marks Place.
Here and in Europe, Chris Husong, Elixinol VP of communications and marketing, told Cannabis Wire, hemp pre-rolls are becoming increasingly widespread. Jonathan Miller, a spokesperson for the lobbying group Hemp Roundtable, also noted that pre-rolls “seem to be quite popular” and that industry stakeholders “are anxious to see how local legislators and federal regulators will regulate hemp.”
Meanwhile, from a law enforcement perspective, it’s not easy to visually distinguish between hemp and the plant higher in THC—and the industry is taking note.
In an email to Cannabis Wire, the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) said “The market for smokable hemp flower has proven to be a viable one in North Carolina and Tennessee.”
“There is undoubtedly a perception issue concerning the use of hemp for smoking,” said the HIA’s executive director, Colleen Keahey Lanier. “Smoking is generally not considered safe. However, I expect smoking hemp is no more dangerous than smoking marijuana—but without the high.”
“Law enforcement,” she added, “should prepare to focus on acquiring resources and tools that will prepare them to properly test for concentrations of THC to identify the distinction between legal hemp and marijuana in states where it is still prohibited.”
Husong of Elixinol, which does not manufacture pre-rolls, somewhat mirrored her statement. In response to questions regarding possible health implications of hemp pre-rolls, he told Cannabis Wire that, “in general, it’s not healthy to take in something that is burning.” Finished products, like the balms, oils, and lotions his company offers, he said, are “more beneficial and easier to use.”
In an email to Cannabis Wire, Justin Poklis, a researcher at the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University, mirrored Husong’s comments, saying that “anytime one burns plant material and then inhales the smoke, this would produce an inherent health risk.”
Concerns surrounding the smoking of cannabis of any variety extend beyond the United States. In the Netherlands, where the medical use of cannabis is permitted and its adult use is tolerated, the government explicitly warns that “Smoking cannabis is just as harmful as smoking tobacco.” To avoid potential adverse effects, including lung damage and throat infections, the Office of Medicinal Cannabis encourages the use of vaporizers.
The FDA declined to comment for this story. However, during a historic hearing last week, the agency gathered comments, data, and information concerning what outgoing Commissioner Scott Gottlieb described as the “particular safety concerns that we should be aware of” when it comes to Cannabis sativa L. and its components, including CBD. According to Gottlieb, the agency “does not intend for this hearing to produce any decisions or new positions on specific regulatory questions.” However, the hearing, which addressed questions like: “How does the mode of delivery (e.g., ingestion, absorption, inhalation) affect the safety and exposure to cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds?,” will “inform FDA’s regulatory oversight of these products.”
While the federal government grapples with this question, state lawmakers continue to craft legislation to regulate hemp. In Texas, for instance, legislators recently passed House Bill 1325. If implemented, the bill—which awaits the approval of Governor Greg Abbott—will allow for statewide production of hemp, but it explicitly outlaws pre-rolls.
In fact, when legislators debated the bill back in May, State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen, raised concerns about monitoring the crop’s THC levels and then asked: “Can this stuff be smoked?”
To this, the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, responded: “I guess you could theoretically smoke it. [But] You’d get no effect from it.” He then went on to assure Hinojosa that the bill “specifically prohibits manufacturing for the purpose of smokables.”
Hinojosa appreciated the clarification, adding: “You know, nowadays, people just smoke anything.”
State Senator Pete Flores, a Republican from Pleasanton who co-sponsored the bill, then stepped in and asked Perry to assure the people of Texas that legalizing hemp “is no slippery slope towards marijuana.” Perry obliged.