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A psychoactive hemp product is available where marijuana is banned due to a loophole


Nearly half of states have made recreational marijuana legal. In some states where recreational cannabis is still restricted, people can get the same psychoactive effects from a new, apparently legal product called THCA. Steve Harrison of member station WFAE in Charlotte reports.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: In North Carolina, recreational marijuana is illegal. So is medical marijuana. But you wouldn't know that when you go to Blue Flowers in one of Charlotte's most upscale areas. When you approach the store, you quickly notice the smell.

NICK DAVENPORT: It's almost like the scent trail, you know, off a pie hanging out in a window, scent lines waving around.

HARRISON: That's Blue Flowers salesman Nick Davenport, who's standing in front of several large mason jars of hemp flower with names for different strains, like Bruce Banner and Karma 20/20.

DAVENPORT: I've got things from sativa to hybrid to indica strains where those will still give you uplifting, your relaxing, your kind of middleman effects.

HARRISON: He's skilled in hyping what he's selling.

DAVENPORT: Something more couch-locky (ph). I always refer indica as, like, in da couch (ph) to my people because you should expect that kind of effect.

HARRISON: There are pre-rolled joints next to the register.

DAVENPORT: That one on the right - that is the Lemon Drop strain - has a nice kind of citrus hint to the flavor, just a nice, smooth smoke. And you'll just be in a good spot afterwards. That's for sure.

HARRISON: People are often stunned at all of the products that can get them high.

DAVENPORT: Hundred percent. People coming in here, they're like, I had no idea it was even this, like, far along. I didn't even know I could get this kind of stuff.

HARRISON: It's possible because of the 2018 farm bill. It removed hemp products as controlled substances, so long as they have less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC. That's the active ingredient in marijuana that gets you high. After that law, the market found new ways to make hemp mimic marijuana. One of the first products - 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.

RYAN DILLS: But you can extract it from millions of pounds of plants or however many plants you got, then you can have as much Delta-8 as you want.

HARRISON: The concentrated Delta-8 is placed in gummies or sprayed on hemp flower. The FDA has not evaluated Delta-8 nor approved it for safe use and has sent warning letters to companies not to market it as a medical product. Then last year, another hemp product hit the market - THCA. Eating a piece of hemp flower with THCA wouldn't get you high, but that changes when it's burned.

DILLS: It becomes Delta-9 once you combust it, once you smoke it. So it's kind of a loophole, if you will.

HARRISON: Recreational marijuana is illegal in Georgia. Dills says he's not selling the illegal Delta-9 THC, but unheated THCA.

DILLS: So people that come in that know and ask about it, we'll educate them, and say, hey, this is the same thing as regular THC. Buying a joint in Colorado is the same thing as buying this THCA joint.

HARRISON: Stores in marijuana-restrictive states like Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Alabama and Nebraska sell similar products. That surprises Erica Stark with the National Hemp Association.

ERICA STARK: I don't know how that's legal.

HARRISON: She says the 2018 bill requires states to test hemp for its Delta-9 THC content, quote "post-decarboxylation" - in other words, after it's been burned.

STARK: So a 21% THCA flower would never meet the hemp standards of any state.

HARRISON: But federal guidelines only require that testing a month before harvesting the hemp. That's when THC levels are still low. Some states, like Louisiana, have already banned smokable hemp. Many others have not regulated it, says Phil Dixon at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Government.

PHIL DIXON: It's kind of the Wild West. There's no age limit on this stuff. I got prosecutors calling me all the time that are like, hey, I got a kid. We found him with a bag of Delta-8 gummies - middle school. I want to charge him. And it's like, it's not a crime.

HARRISON: North Carolina lawmakers introduced a bill that would add an age requirement for these hemp products, but it's stalled. Meanwhile, Blue Flowers, that hemp store by the Whole Foods, now has a billboard on Interstate 85.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Harrison