In red states where marijuana is illegal, other hemp products flourish
In North Carolina, recreational marijuana is illegal. So is medical marijuana.
But you wouldn't know that when you go to Blue Flowers, a hemp store in one of Charlotte's most upscale areas, next to a Whole Foods.
Approaching the store, you quickly notice the smell.
"It's almost like the scent trail of a pie hanging out in a window, you know those little scent lines waving around," said Nick Davenport, a Blue Flowers salesman.
He's standing in front of several large mason jars of hemp flower, with names for different strains like Bruce Banner and Karma 20/20. His store looks just like a California marijuana dispensary.
"I've got things from sativa to hybrid to indica strains where those will still give you your uplifting, your relaxing, your kind middle-man effects," Davenport said.
He's skilled in hyping what he's selling.
"Or an indica if they want a more sedating relaxing experience. Something more couch-lockey. Indica is In Da Couch for my people because you should expect that kind of effect," Davenport said.
There are pre-rolled joints next to the register.
"That one on the right is a lemon drop strain. It has a nice citrus hint to the flower," he said. "Just a nice smooth smoke. And you'll be in a nice spot afterwards that's for sure."
Often people are stunned at the extent of products that can get them high.
"100 percent. 100 percent," he said. "People come in here and are like, I had no idea it was this far along. I didn't even know I could get this kind of stuff."
Nearly half of states have legalized recreational marijuana, with most being blue states run by Democrats.
But in many Republican-controlled states, there has been an increase in hemp products that also have psychoactive effects, like Delta 8 and the newest arrival, THC-A, which is sold by Blue Flowers. Those products have quietly become the red state way to get high.
The 2018 Farm bill removed hemp as a controlled substance, so long as it has less than .3 percent Delta 9 THC. That's the active ingredient in marijuana that produces intoxicating effects.
After that law, the market found new ways to make hemp mimic marijuana.
One of the first products was Delta 8. It has psychoactive effects that exist only in very small quantities in hemp, says Ryan Dills, who co-owns the Georgia Hemp Company.
"But if you can extract it, you know, from millions of pounds of plants or however many plants you got then you can have as much Delta 8 as you want," Dills said.
The concentrated Delta 8 is placed in gummies or sprayed on hemp flower. Some users have said that Delta 8's high is more enjoyable than regular Delta 9 THC, with less side effects like anxiety and paranoia.
The FDA, however, has said it has not evaluated Delta 8 nor approved it for safe use. It has also sent warning letters to businesses across the country, citing them for claiming their Delta 8 products were treatments for various medical conditions or could be used for other therapeutic uses. The letters also cited companies for not labeling food items with Delta 8 properly.
And some states, like New York, have banned Delta 8, even while making recreational marijuana legal.
Delta 8 became popular during the pandemic.
Last year, another hemp product hit the market: THC-A.
Eating a piece of hemp flower with THC-A, won't get you high. But that changes when it's burned, Dills said.
"It becomes Delta 9 once you combust it, once you smoke it. So it's kind of a loophole if you will," he said.
Recreational marijuana is illegal in Georgia. Dills stressed that he's not selling the illegal Delta 9 THC, but unheated THC-A.
"So people that come in and know, and ask about it, we'll educate them," he said. " We'll say 'hey this is the same thing as regular THC. Buying a joint in Colorado is the same thing as buying this THCA joint.' "
Stores in marijuana-restrictive states like Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Alabama and Nebraska also sell THC-A hemp flower and pre-rolled joints.
That surprised Erica Stark, executive director with the National Hemp Association.
"I don't know how that's legal," she said.
She noted that the 2018 bill requires states to test hemp for its Delta 9 THC content "post-decarboxylation."
In other words, after it's been burned.
"So a 21 percent THC-A flower would never meet the hemp standard of any state," Stark said.
But Rod Kight, an Asheville, N.C. attorney who represents the hemp industry, said U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines on hemp production from 2021 allows growers to test a plant's total THC content 30 days before the plant is harvested.
"That's a time when decarboxylated THC content is much lower," he said.
Kight added that "once harvested, the sole metric for distinguishing between lawful hemp and unlawful marijuana is the concentration of delta-9 THC, and the concentrations of other cannabinoids, including THC-A, are immaterial."
Some states, like Louisiana, have already banned smokable hemp.
Many others have not regulated it, says Phil Dixon Jr. at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill's school of government. "It's kind of the Wild West right now," he said.
Though many hemp stores ask for ID and won't sell to minors, there are often no laws prohibiting sales to minors. That's the case in North Carolina.
"There's no age limit on this stuff," Dixon said. "I have prosecutors calling me all of the time saying, 'Hey I have a kid with a bag of Delta 8 gummies in middle school and I want to charge him.' And ...it's not a crime."
North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill this year that would add an age requirement for these hemp products, but it's stalled.
Meanwhile, Blue Flowers — that hemp store near the Whole Foods — now has a billboard on Interstate 85.
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