An attempt by Louisiana regulators to crack down on consumable hemp products – billed as legal THC by some of the thousands of retailers licensed to sell them – has run into swift pushback from the hemp industry, and a judge this week barred the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control from taking many of the products off the shelves.
In January, the office vowed to crack down on consumable hemp products, and officials dispatched agents to 2,500 retailers who sell them to warn of the enforcement action. In response, the agency was hit with two lawsuits from hemp manufacturers and distributors arguing that the agency had overstepped its authority.
The hemp pushback is also expected to spill over into the upcoming legislative session, where the cousin to marijuana will again be a hot topic. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder spent the past several years ushering through legislation to set up a market for gummies and tinctures containing compounds found in hemp, a less psychoactive relative of marijuana. Last year, he promised his conservative colleagues in the Republican-dominated Legislature that his bill wouldn’t allow products on the market that get users high.
But hemp manufacturers and retailers found a huge market for their products, which in fact can get users high if they take them in sufficient quantities, because they contain variants of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. They include gummies, tinctures and some vapes, the latter of which the Louisiana Department of Health OK’d accidentally. The Health Department has reversed course, disallowing inhalable products.
The ATC has since sought to crack down on the products, demanding retailers and distributors stop selling them.
This week, Fresh Farms E-Liquid, which buys and packages its hemp-derived THC products in California before shipping them through a Louisiana distributor, filed suit. In it, the company said ATC is overstepping its authority, and asked a judge to halt its enforcement.
Nineteenth Judicial District Judge Trudy White, who is set to step down from the bench April 1, issued a broad temporary injunction barring ATC from conducting its crackdown until a hearing on April 6. It’s unclear which judge will take the case over from White when she steps down; the court is still coordinating with the state Supreme Court on an interim replacement.
Forrest Town, co-owner of the Fresh Farms E-Liquid, said in an interview that the Department of Health approved its products, one of which is a vape cartridge that tells users not to inhale the product, but instead put the liquid under their tongue. Then, he said, the company invested substantial money to package and sell them in Louisiana.
He said while some people may abuse the products and get high, that’s not his company’s intent. Moreover, he argued, the same is true of an array of over-the-counter products sold at pharmacies. He said the products his company sells has medicinal value.
“They’re killing the small businesses, the wholesalers, and the manufacturers,” Town said. “It’s not a harmful product. Even under the abuse of the product, it’s still not as dangerous as other 'vices' out there.”
Two other hemp companies – manufacturer 318 LABZ and distributor STR8W8 Cannabis – filed a lawsuit against ATC this month as well. The suit said the companies won state approval for their products and got all the required licenses and permits needed to sell their “air bars” and “mini mixables.”
Nonetheless, the suit says, the ATC earlier this year started seizing the products “without warning, notification or legal justification.” The firms asked for an injunction and for the ATC to return its products. A hearing in that case, before Judge Ronald Johnson, is slated for March 29.
Ernest Legier, head of the ATC, said in an interview that it’s “100% false” that the agency had seized any products. He said the agency’s enforcement has been limited to educating retailers and distributors about the rules. He said that would be followed by another round of visits that could involve removal of products or citations.
“We feel we are on very solid legal ground with respect to our position,” Legier said. “We certainly value public safety more than anything in these matters. However, our system is crafted as such there are checks and balances and we intend to fight the lawsuits vigorously in court.”
Staff write Matt Bruce contributed to this story.