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Encore: States aim to regulate weed alternatives like delta-8


Hemp products, like Delta-8, are designed to get users high. And where marijuana is legal, you can find them at local stores. The products have been a lifeline for the struggling hemp industry. But federal regulators aren't monitoring what's in the products, and there's been a spike in calls to poison control centers. As Ben Paviour from VPM reports, states like Virginia are starting to crack down.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Sean Dudley turned to Delta-8 during a period of upheaval in his life last year. He just graduated college and moved to Wisconsin, far from his friends and family in Virginia. He was feeling some of the post-college funk.

SEAN DUDLEY: The post-grad depression that you kind of get. You're like, oh, I'm not in college. What am I doing? Like, being an actual adult is weird.

PAVIOUR: Dudley thought marijuana might help him take his mind off it all. But it's illegal in Wisconsin, and Delta-8 edibles were everywhere.

DUDLEY: I found, ultimately, that using Delta-8 was a much more, at the time, introspective and nice experience than any time that I had used weed.

PAVIOUR: Dudley eventually moved back to Virginia, where adults are allowed to possess marijuana, and stopped using Delta-8. He says the products have their place but should be regulated.

DUDLEY: I've definitely had, like, some Delta-8 gummies where they have just hit me so hard compared to others.

PAVIOUR: It's something that Michelle Peace hears all the time. She's a lab director for forensic toxicology research at Virginia Commonwealth University. Peace often tests Delta-8 products people send her.

MICHELLE PEACE: There's a lot of concern around these kinds of products - Lucky Charmz with a Z, Apple Jackz with a Z.

PAVIOUR: Some of those products have found their way into the hands of kids. Peace has found that labels are often inaccurate and the dosing can be uneven. Other researchers have found toxic metals. The products can be made using CBD, a chemical found in hemp plants.

PEACE: You take CBD and, with acid and time, it will convert to Delta-8 and Delta-9.

PAVIOUR: Delta-9 THC is the stuff in marijuana that gets you high. The 2018 Federal Farm Bill said hemp plants could only have a trace amount of the chemical, but it didn't say anything about other THC compounds that have a similar effect. That led to the explosion of Delta-8 products. Other concoctions are popping up all the time, like Delta THC-O and HHC. Peace says they can be even more potent.

PEACE: Delta-8 is like, look at me, look at me. And there's a monster behind the bush, right?

PAVIOUR: So far, Congress hasn't taken up the issue. But states like Colorado and Oregon have passed laws banning Delta-8 products. Other states, like Texas and Kentucky, are facing lawsuits from the hemp industry over new restrictions. That hasn't stopped regulators in Virginia from announcing a ban on Delta-8 products.


MATT LOHR: I want to thank all of you for your participation here this afternoon.

PAVIOUR: Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Matt Lohr tried to strike a friendly note with a largely hostile audience at a hemp commission meeting earlier this month.


LOHR: And I have to say, when we took office six months ago, I had no idea that this topic of hemp and hemp extracts would be as big of a topic as it has become.

PAVIOUR: But most people at the meeting said he shouldn't have been surprised. Hemp processor Kerry McCormick said the state's new regulations only hurt small businesses.


KERRY MCCORMICK: I'm about 45 minutes from the Tennessee border. About 15 of my jobs are about to get outsourced to Tennessee. That's going to be on this committee here.

PAVIOUR: Others at the meeting argued the ban will only push people to the black market, away from producers who are making lab-tested products. And even as state regulators try to restrict Delta-8 products, it's not hard to find online sellers willing to ship it right to your door.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.


Ben Paviour