Hemp plant_AP

Public officials in Pennsylvania warned state lawmakers on Tuesday that the proliferation of unregulated CBD products into the marketplace endangers consumers while undermining the efficacy of its tightly controlled medical marijuana program. 

Some private physicians say, however, that this demonization detracts from the reality that both crops – when controlled and regulated – hold enormous medical potential and can coexist together.

“This is about real science and real healing,” Dr. Steve Groff told the House Health Committee. “I’m representing hemp, but I’m here as a physician and a scientist and I want to see both of these industries grow appropriately.” 

Groff, an orthopedic surgeon, opened Farmacy Partners in 2018 after researching the effectiveness of cannabinoids in treating pain and other medical conditions. His clinic offers CBD and hemp products and referrals for patients seeking medical marijuana through the state-administered program.

“I’m not here to defend the CBD being sold in convenience stores,” he said. “That’s not the way it should be done.”

Groff said the term medical marijuana, itself, leads to confusion. Both hemp and cannabis come from the same plant, though the former contains less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive compound known as THC. 

“There’s really no such thing as medical marijuana,” he said. “Cannabis either has high THC or low THC, and it is used medically or it is not.”

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said that although hemp and medical marijuana both come from the cannabis sativa plant, the strains are genetically and clinically different. The latter, she said, is tightly regulated from seed to sale, guaranteeing that the product consumers receive contains the ingredients as listed. 

“I think that the public does not understand that,” Levine said. “They think that it’s part of our program, but it has nothing to do with our program. Our products are for 23 serious medical conditions, and you have to see a physician to get certified, and that none of that is true with CBD."

In 2018, Congress enacted legislation that reclassified hemp and officially removed it from the Schedule 1 list of controlled substances, allowing for commercial crop production. The state Department of Agriculture has since approved 324 growing permits that encompass 4,000 acres planted across 55 counties.

The problem is, the department’s oversight ends as soon as farmers pass crops onto processors – where the final product can vary widely in quality and advertise illegal medical claims.

By comparison, Pennsylvania's 22 medical marijuana grower/processors and 77 dispensaries undergo extensive inspections and quality testing in order to maintain their licenses. 

Levine, in her testimony, cited studies from the Journal of the American Medical Association that found nearly 70 percent of CBD products sold online were mislabeled and others were tainted with bacterial and fungal contaminants.  

“I’m not saying they are all bad, but they are just not regulated,” she said. “We have no idea about the location of where these CBD products are made. I would suspect most are not made in Pennsylvania and are made somewhere else.”

Natalie Krak, policy director for the Department of Agriculture, and Deputy Director Fred Strathmeyer defended the state’s hemp farmers and blamed uneven federal enforcement on specific regulations that govern the sale and advertising of CBD products for creating these problems.

“There’s not been a consistent application of the rules, and we’ve seen a proliferation of these products from gas stations to grocery stores,” Krak said.

“Some varieties high in THC are making it to our farmers,” Strathmeyer said. “Our growers are good people. They are not intending to show up with the wrong product.” 

Billy Woolf, chief operating officer of Steep Hill PA and a member of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, said the federal law indeed came with unintended consequences. 

“There now exists a public safety concern with the flood of unregulated CBD products on our market,” he said.

Groff encouraged lawmakers to not set aside the promise of hemp over a few bad actors. He said CBD products derived from hemp can be safe, but would benefit from more research and stricter regulation enforcement.

“Not all hemp operations are as dire as has been described here,” he said. “Pennsylvania can do an amazing thing by recognizing that these things can work together at the highest level.”

– The Center Square

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.