NASHVILLE - A bill that began as an effort to ban delta-8 and delta-10 products in Tennessee was amended in state House committees on Tuesday to allow continued sales of the currently legal, hemp-derived psychoactive cannabinoid but impose new regulations, licensure and packaging requirements as well as age restrictions and a new 5% tax on sales.
The amended House Bill 1927 cleared its final House committees and is scheduled for a floor vote on Wednesday.
"This deals with products that unfortunately are currently legal but completely unregulated and that by and large are used for recreational purposes," House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, told House Finance Subcommittee members. "Currently a 7-year-old could walk into a gas station and buy a THC product that is extremely high in THC that was derived from hemp."
Lamberth, a former prosecutor, had originally hoped to ban the products. But many House members balked because of personal views or in light of a hard press by hemp growers, laboratories and retailers. Lamberth said lawmakers had to take some actions, noting that because of laws previously passed, a child could get "higher than a kite" on that product.
"And there's not a thing in the law right now to prevent it," Lamberth said. "So this puts a regulatory framework in place to make sure that no one is purchasing these products that is under 21, to make sure that they are tested, they are regulated, they are packaged properly, they are not marketed to children."
Senate Finance Committee members delayed making changes on their own version until Wednesday.
But Sen. Richard Briggs, a Republican physician from Knoxville who like Lamberth originally pressed the bill to ban delta-8, said the direction is clear and lawmakers need to act.
"I think the genie's out of the bottle on delta-8 in Tennessee," Briggs told Senate Finance Committee members on Tuesday. "What this amendment tries to do is to regulate it and get it out of the hands of kids."
At Briggs' urging, Senate Finance Committee members approved an amendment to the original bill which initially restricted sales and use of delta-8 to no more than .03% tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the ingredient that produces a high.
Like the House version, it imposes a 5% tax on products such as gummy bears and coolies. It's projected to raise $10.27 million annually.
The bill also imposes testing and quality standards. Other provisions bar manufacturers from using cartoons on packaging to make the products more appealing to teens and children.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, told colleagues he was delaying a final committee vote until Wednesday to give panel members more time to study the amendment. It comes as lawmakers work to wrap up their annual session on Thursday.
Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, wasn't happy with the situation.
"This regulates it," he told Briggs. "I'm disappointed that we can't get rid of something that's not only causing poison control number to light up but is available, God forbid, for 12-year-olds."
The legislation still prohibits delta-9 products which come from marijuana and are illegal at the federal level. Hemp produces less THC than marijuana, but chemical processes can tweak hemp liquids to make them more potent.
Other provisions require retailers selling delta-8 products to ID purchasers to ensure they are 21 and older, leaving retailers open to being charged with a Class A misdemeanor carrying penalties of up to eleven months and twenty-nine days in jail and maximum fines of $2,500.
The bill would charge $500 to obtain a manufacturer's license for delta-8. Retailers would pay $250 for a license to sell the products.
A portion of the projected $10.27 million in taxes and fees the sales would generate would go to the Department of Agriculture for enforcement.
Officials from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as well as the Department of Safety and Homeland Security have urged lawmakers to approve it.
But the legislation has triggered alarms among growers, retailers, chemists and others involved in Tennessee's estimated $75 million to $100 million hemp industry. They say their products are safe.
Customers with chronic pain and other issues use delta-8, proponents say, because they believe it helps ease pain and also helps with anxiety and other issues. Proponents also argue that, unlike opioids, it's not an addictive narcotic.
"It's really shocking they choose to focus on this when we have such a problem with opiates in this area," said Elisha Millan, who owns Grass Roots dispensary, which sells delta-8 at its store in Chattanooga and also operates a wholesale company providing products to retailers. "These products are safe alternatives to opiates."