Florida Lawmakers Target Hemp Products

TALLAHASSEE — Hemp farmers and small-business owners are pushing back against Republican lawmakers’ efforts to restrict sales of euphoria-inducing products offered over-the-counter at sites such as convenience stores and CBD shops, saying the changes would force them to shutter operations in Florida.

The Senate on Thursday unanimously passed a bill (SB 1638) that would set caps on intoxicating levels of THC in hemp-extract products and strengthen restrictions on how edible hemp products are packaged.

Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican who sponsored the bill, has said the proposed restrictions address “health and safety” concerns that have arisen as use of products with THC has boomed.

The measure would build on a law passed last year prohibiting the sale of hemp-extract products intended for human ingestion to anyone under age 21. The law also required packaging not be attractive to children.

The current legislation targets what is known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and other cannabinoids in hemp products that can create euphoric effects. The bill would prohibit Florida businesses from manufacturing or selling products that contain more than 0.3 percent delta-9 and place limits on other cannabinoids.

Lawmakers in 2019 authorized hemp to be grown in the state to take advantage of a federal farm law. Hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants, but levels of THC differ, with hemp having a THC level of 0.3 percent or less or a level that “does not exceed 2 milligrams per serving and 10 milligrams per container on a wet-weight basis, whichever is less.”

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The products being targeted are derived from hemp plants. Intoxicating cannabinoids can be naturally extracted from hemp plants and infused into the products to create psychotropic effects.

A House version of the bill is ready to go to the full House after it was approved Thursday by the Infrastructure Strategies Committee. Hemp farmers, manufacturers and store owners raised a litany of objections during the committee meeting.

Jammie Treadwell, co-owner of Treadwell Farms, told the committee that her family has been farming for 100 years and decided to join the hemp industry after the 2019 law passed.

“We feel like you’re pulling the rug completely out from under us, and it’s not just me,” Treadwell said.

Philip Snow, an attorney who represents hemp businesses across the country, said some of his clients relocated to Florida after states such as Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia passed similar restrictions.

“Such caps have been imposed in different states across the country … and many of those businesses died,” Snow said, “I’ve had new clients say, ‘What’s going to happen in Florida this year?’ Well, I can’t really tell you. They might move the goal posts again next year.”

Critics of the legislation maintain that it is driven by medical-marijuana operators to cut off competition in advance of a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older. The Florida Supreme Court is reviewing the proposal to determine whether it will go on the November ballot. Trulieve, the state’s largest medical-marijuana operator, has spent $40 million on the proposal.

“There are 10 other states in this nation that either have medical marijuana and are considering recreational marijuana, where within 18 months of that happening you see language that we see before us today. It’s done in a manner to ensure that there’s no competition for when that recreational marijuana bill potentially passes,” Rep. Hilary Cassel, D-Dania Beach, said before voting against the House measure Thursday.

According to Cassel, the proposed restrictions would affect more than 10,000 businesses that generate $16 billion in revenue.

But House bill sponsor Tommy Gregory, R-Lakewood Ranch, said he doesn’t believe the restrictions would kill the hemp industry in Florida. He said he and other lawmakers signed off on the 2019 law authorizing “industrial hemp” believing the plant would be used for products such as textiles, rope and animal feed. Instead, hemp-based products are “really being taken for psychoactive purposes,” he said.

JD McCormick, who represents the Florida Healthy Alternatives Association, told the House panel that hemp-based products offer a healthier alternative to alcohol or opioids. A tearful McCormick said his late father became addicted to pain medication after an injury.

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“It was then I swore I would never take opioids for pain management. If addiction has not touched you or your family … it is a tragic series of emotional battles that feels inescapable,” McCormick said. “This bill, as written, will hurt Floridians who use the products for sleep assistance, pain management and the like. This bill destroys small businesses and hemp farmers around the state.”

Gregory, however, said people are “self-medicating” with products that have not been approved by federal authorities. He called the legislation “a health and safety bill.”

“There is a scientific discussion that must take place here. We do have to land on the spot that we think is appropriate,” he said.

Anthony Ferrari, chief science officer of Palmetto-based Sunmed, said his company is the “second-largest CBD distributor in the entire world.” Sunmed is working with state universities conducting research on hemp products, according to Ferrari.

“We’re literally right now creating a whole situation where all of our warehouses move, all of every distribution center moves, all the jobs would be lost. We’re just asking for middle ground,” Ferrari said.

Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, urged committee members to vote against the measure.

“I am worried that people will potentially seek out other alternatives that may not be as safe, that can actually lead to a very unhealthy addiction and truly harm them,” she said.

Gregory said he was willing to talk to his colleagues about potential changes to the caps but maintained that the industry needs more regulation.

“Support it today … and then come by my office and let me know what you think the right content level is both per serving and per package that will allow consumers to get this product that they clearly want to use and yet keep Florida consumers safe,” he said.

After the committee signed off on the bill, Gregory told The News Service of Florida he didn’t believe the proposed caps would put Florida companies out of business.

But for companies that sell products that don’t meet the proposed caps, “without a doubt, it will definitely change their business model,” Gregory said.

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