State lawmakers consider tightening restrictions on hemp products

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A panel of state lawmakers is considering a bill that could significantly restrict the use and sale of certain products derived from hemp — including making it illegal to smoke the substance.

Wyoming law currently says that, as long as certain licensing requirements are followed in the growing and processing of the crop, “the possession, purchase, sale, transportation and use of hemp and hemp products by any person is allowable without restriction.”

As Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt sees it, that means hemp “can be used by anybody in any way.”

“You have to be 21 to smoke a cigarette, but as long as you can get past the little child-proof lighter, apparently you can smoke hemp,” the chief told Park County commissioners in September.

Hemp is a variant of cannabis, the same plant that produces marijuana, but it lacks the psychoactive effects of its cousin.

When the Wyoming Legislature authorized the growth of hemp in 2019, numerous lawmakers expressed excitement about the various products the crop could yield, from food to fiber, and the common wisdom was that smoking the leafy substance would bring only a headache and a burnt tongue.

However, smokable hemp buds, imported from other states like Washington, are now being legally offered for sale at various outlets in Wyoming, including at a shop in Cody.

Although the products presumably contain just a fraction of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in marijuana, Eckerdt said the buds look and smell the same.

Being unable to differentiate between the substances “has left law enforcement in a pinch,” he told commissioners.

There have been discussions about using the Wyoming Department of Agriculture’s laboratory to test for THC levels and sort out marijuana and hemp.

In the meantime, however, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation has been sending samples to a private lab in California at a cost $500 per test, Eckerdt said.

Further, if the lab’s experts are needed to testify in a court case, he said bringing them to Wyoming would cost $5,000 to $10,000, Eckerdt.

He predicted that marijuana users will say they’re carrying legal hemp “and we have no way to prove that it’s not.”

At the chief’s request, Sen. R.J. Kost, R-Powell, has put forward a bill that would ban the possession and sale of hemp for smoking.

The legislation would also limit the use of CBD (cannabidiol), a substance found in hemp that is believed to provide benefits for certain health conditions.

Under the draft bill, CBD could not be added to any alcoholic beverages or to any food products or beverages without approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Further, the legislation would prohibit hemp products containing CBD from being promoted as dietary supplements or medical cures and would require a label saying, “This product has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

The Joint Agriculture Committee voted 6-5 to take up the bill at its Aug. 27 meeting.

“I think we need to do something,” said state Rep. Glenn Moniz, R-Laramie, after hearing from Eckerdt and Lincoln County Prevention Specialist Brittany Ritter. “I think it’s really exciting for the State of Wyoming on the economic potential that hemp has for our state,” Ritter told the panel, “but there is some concern coming from the prevention side of hemp and the issue of smokable hemp coming into our state.”

She said there’s evidence that smoking the substance can cause liver damage and intestinal problems, interact with medications and cause changes in alertness and mood. “We think because this product is so new, and there is such little testing on the definite effects, especially long-term effects, it’s hard to say for sure exactly what could happen to somebody that is consuming — especially in our youth population with an undeveloped brain,” Ritter said.

She contrasted the lack of limits on hemp with those placed on alcohol and tobacco.

But not everyone on the committee was convinced of the need for the bill.

Reps. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, and John Winter, R-Thermopolis, were among those who voted no.

“We’re not for it,” Laursen said.

State Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, said he thought the draft went too far in regulating and restricting the sale of CBD products.

“I don’t think we’ve proven that it’s a harm” to consumers, Bouchard said, adding that he personally believes CBD offers health benefits.

State Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, similarly expressed concern about going “down the wrong path” in placing new restrictions on CBD oil and other products derived from hemp. He made reference to the fact that Wyoming lawmakers legalized CBD oil back in 2015, seeing its potential for treating epilepsy.

However, Blake did say he’d support prohibiting those under the age of 21 from smoking hemp.

Committee Chairman Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, promised there would be “lots of opportunities for amendments” to the bill at the committee’s next meeting, which begins Monday.

Chief Eckerdt has long been suspicious of the crop, often noting that the industry talks about hemp “grows,” and “kilos” of product.

“I’m not afraid of hemp. I am concerned about a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he told county commissioners at their Sept. 15 meeting, adding, “If there’s not any nefarious intent here, why are we using drug terminology to describe an agricultural crop?”

Eckerdt worries that marijuana is being normalized and suggested that local governments should consider regulating shops featuring the hemp-products — perhaps by requiring them to be a certain distance from schools, libraries or parks.

Healthy Park County Community Prevention Specialist Wendy Morris expressed concerns about social norms being established when children see marijuana-like products in stores.

“Marijuana, CBD and hemp, they’re all different, but maybe the average consumer might not perceive them as different,” Morris said.

Commission Chairman Joe Tilden said he was supportive when the Legislature legalized hemp, believing the versatile crop would be good for Park County.

But Tilden said he’d never considered the concerns raised by the chief.

“For me, it’s very apparent that there are a lot of questions,” he said.

In their efforts to develop a new industry, state lawmakers “opened the door and didn’t even think about the consequences when the horse ran away,” Tilden said at the Sept. 15 meeting. “My question is now, how do we get the horse back in the barn — and get the door closed?”

Eckerdt said it will be a challenge: “I would like to get the horse back in the barn while it’s still a colt — and before something else happens or something more comes down the pipe,” he told commissioners.

The Legislature’s Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee is tentatively set to take up the bill at 9 a.m. Monday.

“I am betting there will be some amendments to it after testimony and discussion,” Sen. Kost said in an email.

The meeting will be held remotely and broadcast on YouTube, but with a remote site set up at the Park County Weed and Pest building (1067 Road 13) for public attendance. For more information and a full agenda, visit the committee’s webpage at wyoleg.gov/Committees/2020/J05.

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