Many licensed marijuana grows in states that have legalized marijuana face an existential threat: high-inducing cannabis compounds derived not from the heavily regulated and taxed legal marijuana industry, but from a chemical process involving little-regulated, cheaply grown hemp, the Associated Press reports. While marijuana and hemp are the same plant — cannabis — the distinction between the two is a legal one, and comes down to the amount of THC in the plant, specifically the amount of a THC type called delta-9. Hemp is defined in federal law by its low delta-9 THC content and is traditionally used for food, clothing and industrial applications. Since Congress passed a 2018 law authorizing the growing of hemp nationwide, there’s been an unforeseen consequence: People exploiting what they see as a loophole have taken that hemp, extracted a non-intoxicating compound called CBD, and chemically changed it.
Unlike the completely artificial, often dangerous drugs known as K2 or Spice and called “synthetic marijuana,” the chemically created THC at issue consists of molecules found naturally in cannabis, though sometimes in vanishingly small amounts. It’s far cheaper to produce THC chemically from hemp than to extract it from marijuana. Because it is derived from hemp, that THC can wind up in candies, vape oils and other products sold in gas stations, convenience stores and online, even in states where marijuana is illegal. At least 17 states have banned such products, but they remain available in many, including the pioneering legal marijuana state of Washington, where gas station and vape-shop sales of THC created from hemp offer competition to the regulated marijuana market.