After listening to THC concentrated invoice stalls in Washington legislature
Ben Adlin, January 30, 2020
High-THC concentrates like this sliver would have been prohibited by the bill. (HubbardSteve / AdobeStock)
A suggestion by the state of Washington to limit cannabis concentrates to only 10% THC appears to have stalled in committee. Legislators announced on Thursday that he would prevent the measure from proceeding.
House Bill 2546 prohibits products that currently account for nearly 40% of legal adult cannabis use, including the vast majority of vape cartridges and dabbed extracts.
The sponsors of the bill were motivated by the growing fear that high-THC products could be associated with psychoses in minors. Legislators in Olympia said they were hesitant to approve such a major change in the law, but made it clear that they were following the issue closely.
"This bill will not be removed from this committee," said Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21), chairman of the Commerce and Gambling Committee, at the end of a preliminary hearing on the Thursday morning bill, "but the conversation is certain . "
Cannabis and psychosis questioned
Researchers have investigated the obvious connections between early cannabis use and psychosis in recent years. However, due to the limited data available, they still do not fully understand the relationship. While some studies suggest a causal link, others suggest that the trend could actually be a sign that people with psychosis are using cannabis to treat their symptoms.
Perhaps due to the scientific uncertainty surrounding this issue, public comments during the Thursday hearing often relied on familiar discussion points about the risks and benefits of legalization in general. Industry officials praised jobs and tax revenues from legal products, while drug advocates raised awareness of the dangers of THC for the developing brain.
"High-THC marijuana affects judgment, impulse control, and increases sex drive," warned Henry Levine, a Bellingham-based psychiatrist who spoke for the bill. "It's a bad combination in youth."
Industry officials complained that many of the declarations in support of the draft law were ignored. "The exaggeration in THC has so far been reefer madness," said Kyle Capizzi, managing director of the Craft Cannabis Coalition, an industrial trading group.
Psychosis is "a multifactorial disease," he told the committee. "There is no single source, and cannabis is unlikely to add much to a person's mental health compared to many other factors."
Some legislators struggled to keep up. "I am a child of the 60s and 70s," said Steve Kirby (D-29) once, "but I have to tell you: I don't know what polka dots are. What do I do with them to concentrate?"
How do minors get products?
The elephant in the room is that due to the legalization, highly effective cannabis concentrates are generally in abundance. The fact that most consumers buy concentrate products in licensed stores is generally considered a success of legalization. While Washington's licensed cannabis stores are among the best in the country to prevent underage sales, government-approved products often reach minors through friends or family.
Rep. Lauren Davis, the main sponsor of the bill, believes that restricting highly effective products can solve the problem, although she says she is open to other approaches. She denies that her intention is to ban all intoxicating THC vape products, as some critics claimed.
"This is not my goal," she told Leafly in an interview before the Thursday hearing. "My goal is to prevent young people with a developing prefrontal cortex from accessing highly effective THC products."
When voters in Washington legalized cannabis in 2012, Davis could hardly imagine that "100% THC concentrate is immediately available in stores." Residents who advocated legalization could now advocate limiting effectiveness. "It would be really interesting to have a conversation and have a wide-ranging election dialogue."
A puzzling upper limit of 10% THC
If Davis’s goal is to start a conversation, HB 2546 is an aggressive opening line. The proposal would arm the state-legal cannabis industry by imposing an arbitrary limit on THC that is not based on scientific consensus on what constitutes a potentially dangerous product. Consumers may not have imagined product testing at 100% THC, but it is not clear whether they expected a 10% cap.
Leo Beletsky, professor of law and public health at Northwestern University, called the 10% cap "mysterious" and "arbitrarily low".
"You cite this study, in which you used a 10% cutoff for what you define as highly effective," he said to Leafly after the bill was submitted. "I'm not sure that's a reasonable number."
Driving consumers into the illegal market
Beletsky and other public health experts fear that banning products that make up such a large segment of the legal market would drive buyers underground. This is particularly worrying after the outbreak of a lung disease caused by vaping, which spread to the national concentrate market late last year and has cost an estimated 60 lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Health authorities have identified the likely culprit as vitamin E oil, an additive that is used almost exclusively as a cutting agent in the illegal market.
"We are all aware of the fear that has occurred this fall," said Lauren Dobbins of licensed cannabis producer Northwest Cannabis Solutions, who opposed the bill.
Davis admitted that her bill could drive consumers away from legal business, but she downplayed the seriousness of the concern. "It would be naive to assume that there is no opportunity for black market potential," she said, but it is "a logical leap" to assume that "everyone currently buying high-THC products" will be redirected to unlicensed retailers.
Patients and veterans speak out
Other critics at Thursday's hearing warned that banning THC-containing concentrates would be devastating for medical patients and veterans, who often use concentrates as a healthier alternative to smoking cannabis.
Although the proposed cap would not apply to medical cannabis products, many patients still purchase adult products, either because they do not want their names included in the state's patient registry or because medical products are not available nearby.
“I am a Marine Corps veteran with PTSD. I use concentrates every day, ”Patrick Seifert from veteran group 22 Too Many told the legislator. "They are taking one of our most valuable tools to help with PTSD," he told the committee.
A THC limit of 10% could also force processors to dilute concentrates with additives, according to industry representatives. "Legislation would force cannabis producers to use large amounts of additives to reach this 10% THC limit," said Crystal Oliver of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association.
Still others asked why the focus was more on THC concentrations than on absolute amounts. "What I've heard from Rep. Davis is that this is all dose dependent," complained Thomas Fallihee from retailer PRC Arlington. "Why does the calculation only focus on the THC percentage?"
"People are talking about it"
Davis conceded the 10% arbitrariness of the cutoff. "I don't think there is an agreed standard," she said to Leafly. "I think there are obviously more [a need for] conversations and investigations."
Davis defines the 10% ban as the beginning of this conversation. The fact that the bill was heard at all is a success in their eyes. "I think the most useful thought that happened here," she said, "is that people talk about psychosis."
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and publisher who specializes in cannabis policy and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin