High-THC concentrates like this piece of shatter would have been outlawed by the bill. (HubbardSteve/AdobeStock)
A Washington state proposal to cap cannabis concentrates at just 10% THC appears to be stalled in committee, with lawmakers indicating on Thursday that they will prevent the measure from moving forward.
House Bill 2546 would outlaw products that currently account for nearly 40% of legal adult-use cannabis sales in the state, including the vast majority of vape cartridges and dabbable extracts.
The bill’s sponsors were motivated by emerging fears that high-THC products could be linked to psychosis in underage users. Lawmakers in Olympia said they were hesitant to approve such a sweeping change to the law but made clear that they’re watching the issue closely.
“This bill is not going to be moving out of this committee,” said Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21), chairman of the House Commerce and Gaming Committee, at the end of a preliminary hearing on the bill Thursday morning, “but the conversation certainly is.”
Cannabis and psychosis questioned
Researchers have been exploring the apparent links between early cannabis use and psychosis more closely in recent years, but limits on available data mean they still don’t fully understand the connection. While some studies have suggested a causal relationship, others have indicated the trend could actually be a sign of people with psychosis using cannabis to treat their symptoms.
Perhaps because of the scientific uncertainty around the issue, public comments at Thursday’s hearing often fell back on familiar talking points about the risks and benefits of legalization in general. Industry representatives touted the jobs and tax revenue flowing from legal products, while drug treatment advocates cautioned of THC’s dangers to the developing brain.
“High-THC marijuana impairs judgment, impairs impulse control, and increases sex drive,” warned Henry Levine, a Bellingham-based psychiatrist who spoke in favor of the bill. “That is a bad combination in youth.”
Industry representatives complained that many of the statements in support of the bill were overblown. “The hyperbole about THC so far has been along the lines of Reefer Madness,” said Kyle Capizzi, executive director of the Craft Cannabis Coalition, an industry trade group.
Psychosis is “a multifactorial disease,” he told the committee. “This doesn’t have a single source, and cannabis is very likely a low contributor compared to many other factors in a person’s mental health.”
Some lawmakers struggled to keep up. “I’m a child of the ’60s and ’70s,” Rep. Steve Kirby (D-29) said at one point, “but I’ve got to tell you: I don’t know what dabbing is. As to concentrate, what do I do with it?”
How are minors obtaining products?
The elephant in the room is that legalization has made high-potency cannabis concentrates more generally abundant. The fact that most consumers buy concentrate products from licensed stores is widely seen as a success of legalization. But although Washington’s licensed cannabis stores are among the nation’s best at preventing underage sales, state-legal products are nevertheless making their way to minors, often through friends or family.
Rep. Lauren Davis, the bill’s primary sponsor, believes the way to address the issue is through restricting high-potency products, though she says she’s open to other approaches. She denies that it’s her intention to ban all intoxicating THC vape products, as some critics have alleged.
“That’s not my goal,” she told Leafly in an interview prior to Thursday’s hearing. “My goal is to prevent access to high-potency THC products among young people with a developing prefrontal cortex.”
When Washington voters legalized cannabis in 2012, Davis contends, hardly anyone could imagine “100% THC concentrate readily available in stores.” Residents who supported legalization, she reasons, might now favor putting a limit on potency. “It’d be really interesting to have a conversation, to do some broad-reaching voter dialogue.”
A puzzling 10% THC cap
If Davis’s goal is to start a conversation, HB 2546 is an aggressive opening line. The proposal would upend the state-legal cannabis industry by imposing what critics say is an arbitrary limit on THC, not one based on scientific consensus of what constitutes a dangerously potent product. Consumers may not have imagined products testing at 100% THC, but it’s not clear they expected a 10% cap, either.
Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and public health at Northwestern University, called the 10% cap “puzzling” and “arbitrarily low.”
“They cite this study where they used a 10% number for a cutoff for what they define to be high-potency,” he told Leafly after the bill was introduced. “I’m not sure that is a number that makes sense.”
Driving consumers into the illicit market
Part of the concern shared by Beletsky and other public health experts is that banning products that make up such a large segment of the legal market would send buyers underground. That’s especially worrying after an outbreak of a vaping-related lung disease that rippled through the national concentrate market late last year, killing an estimated 60 people, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. Health officials have identified the likely culprit as vitamin E oil, an additive used as a cutting agent almost exclusively in the illicit market.
“We are all aware of the vape scare that happened this fall,” said Lauren Dobbins of licensed cannabis producer Northwest Cannabis Solutions, who spoke against the bill.
Davis acknowledged that her bill could push consumers away from legal stores, but she downplayed the seriousness of the concern. “It would be naive to suggest that there would be no possibility of black market potential,” she said, yet it’s “a bit of a leap of logic” to suggest that “all persons who are currently purchasing high-THC products” would be diverted to unlicensed dealers.
Patients and veterans speak out
Other critics at Thursday’s hearing warned that outlawing high-THC concentrates would be devastating to medical patients and veterans, who often use concentrates as a healthier alternative to smoking cannabis.
Although the proposed cap wouldn’t apply to medical cannabis products, many patients still purchase adult-use products, either because they don’t want to add their names to the state’s patient registry or simply because medical products aren’t available near them.
“I’m a Marine Corps veteran with PTSD. I use concentrates every day,” Patrick Seifert, of the veterans group 22 Too Many, told lawmakers. “You’re taking away one of our most valuable tools to help with our PTSD,” he told the committee.
A 10% THC limit could also force processors to dilute concentrates with additives, industry representatives said. “The legislation would cause cannabis producers to use large quantities of additives to dilute and achieve that 10% THC cap,” said Crystal Oliver of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association.
Yet others questioned why the focus was on THC concentrations rather than absolute amounts. “What I heard from Rep. Davis is that this is all dose-dependant,” complained Thomas Fallihee, of the retailer PRC Arlington. “Why does the bill focus only on THC percentage?”
‘People are talking about it’
Davis acknowledged the arbitrariness of the 10% cutoff. “I don’t actually think there is an agreed-upon standard,” she told Leafly. “I think there’s obviously [a need for] more conversation and research.”
Davis frames the 10% ban as just the beginning of that conversation. The fact the bill was heard at all is, in her eyes, a success. “I think the most useful think that’s happened here,” she said, “is that people are talking about psychosis.”