’Delta-8′ ban, industry regulations stall, leaving cannabis in legal gray area in Tennessee – Tennessean

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Michael Solomon lifts a cannabis smoke-filled glass resembling a whiskey snifter to his nose, takes a whiff and inhales it deep into his lungs. He exhales a few seconds later and nods with approval.  

It’s a little after noon on a recent visit to Solomon’s shop, The Holistic Connection, in South Nashville. He is showing off his cannabis „dab” sampler — essentially cannabis concentrate vaporized at a high temperature and converted into smoke — to the customers trickling in.

One, Brad Niesen, a tourist from Philadelphia, opts to use a bong to try a sample of „Suver Haze,” a high-CBD strain of cannabis.

„It’s smooth. Really tasty,”  said Niesen, who said he was surprised to learn that cannabis is legal in Tennessee. „We came into Nashville and saw a sign (for Solomon’s store) and kind of did a double-take and were like, 'Is that a weed store?’ So, that was the first stop of the day, here.”

This is all perfectly legal. For now.

Tennessee lawmakers this year proposed, then backed away from a plan to outlaw such businesses in the state. Then, after an outcry from business owners, pitched a plan to regulate the cannabis business. That plan was also dropped, leaving Tennessee’s $180 million hemp industry in a state of legal limbo.

Hemp-derived cannabis products, including those that can produce a high similar to traditional marijuana, are legal under federal law, thanks in large part to a 2018 Farm Bill broadly legalizing hemp production.

This has led to a boom in the sale of products containing cannabidiol (CBD), so-called 'Delta-8′ Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and lower amounts of „Delta-9 THC,” which is more associated with traditional marijuana.

Cannabis providers like Solomon, who only sells to patrons 21 and older, say the industry is begging for regulations to keep „bad actors” out of the market. He said he doubts that lawmakers will consider banning it again.

„I just don’t see us as a nation, as a people, getting stricter on cannabis,” he said. „I mean, cannabis is one of those things like 80% of the population thinks should be legal. I just think it would be ignorant to go the opposite way.”

Tennessee lawmakers intervene

For the first time this year, the Delta 8 industry caught the ire of Tennessee lawmakers over concerns about children buying the product. They also raised concerns that there are no laws restricting who can buy Delta-8 cannabis and how it may be marketed.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, and House Majority Leader Williams Lamberth, R-Portland, introduced a bill to ban Delta 8 entirely, but it didn’t have enough support.  

A fiscal review by the Tennessee General Assembly also found the production and selling of Delta 8 provided around $180 million in value to the state, a figure that prompted lawmakers to consider regulation of the industry instead.

The final version of legislation created licensing around the production and selling of Delta 8 and banned it from being sold to those under 21, among several other restrictions.  But, the final version wasn’t decided on until the last week of the legislation, which Lamberth said likely lead to its demise. 

„It was one of those things we ran out of time on,” Lamberth said during an end-of-session press conference.

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The other impediment appeared to be the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

Briggs said the primary concern of those groups was that by passing a bill regulating Delta 8, lawmakers were essentially legitimizing the industry. 

„I don’t think they realized what the real problem was,” Briggs said. „We have this marijuana-like substance being sold to kids, and it’s basically being sold anywhere and everywhere.”

Lawmakers are likely to make another attempt at regulating Delta 8 when they meet again next year. 

At his end of the session press conference, McNally said the Delta 8 industry is now „on notice,” and lawmakers would be paying more attention.

Derek Besenius, CEO of Labcanna, which operates a dispensary in East Nashville, said regulations would be welcome.

„It would be very positive for the good players and good actors, like our business, that has already been self-regulating,” Besenius said. „Now that the bill has died, we’re operating in the same wishy-washy gray regulatory area.”

Future big industry?

Colorado and Washington were the first states to fully legalize marijuana for adult use nearly a decade ago. Since then, the industry has taken off across the country.

Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow recreational use of marijuana. Another 23 allow for cannabis use for medical reasons. Traditional marijuana use, sale and possession remain largely illegal in Tennessee.

But hemp products are legal in all states. And Tennessee is primed to become a major producer of the product.

As of last week, there were 1,048 producers licensed for hemp in Tennessee totaling 5,682.3 acres in nearly every county of the state, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. 

Its value, compared to other state crops, are unknown, given that hemp does not have a set market price, said spokeswoman Corinne Gould. For now, it’s unclear how big of a crop it will be in the future, given that it’s been decades since hemp was grown last grown on an industrial scale here, she said.

„We do see hemp as having a future in Tennessee,” Gould said. It incorporates well into rotation with other crops and the significant interest in hemp will likely lead to innovation in technologies and uses. However, it’s too early to predict the potential financial impact.”

Adam Friedman is The Tennessean’s state government and politics reporter. Reach him by email at afriedman@tennessean.com.

Frank Gluck is the health care reporter for The Tennessean. He can be reached at fgluck@tennessean.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FrankGluck.

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