A City Council proposal would dramatically limit the sale of Delta-8 and other intoxicating, hemp-derived products that exploded in popularity after a federal law unintentionally allowed businesses to sell the weedlike substances without regulations.
Second Ward Ald. Brian Hopkins said he plans to introduce an ordinance at Thursday’s City Council meeting to address “a public health crisis” that has emerged as sales of the trendy substances have ramped up.
“We have to act immediately, and this problem has a fairly clear sequence of steps that need to be taken,” said Hopkins, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee. “These are businesses, they’re not drug dealers that can hide in the shadows. They’re storefronts, and it’s happening in plain sight.”
The federal Farm Bill of 2018 legalized the distribution and sale of hemp and its derivatives, but banned products that contain more than a minuscule amount of Delta-9-THC, a component in weed that gets users stoned.
The law, however, didn’t account for the galaxy of mind-altering compounds, like Delta-8, that can be produced from hemp, opening the door to a lucrative market with little oversight.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has since labeled synthetic hemp-derived products as controlled substances, but the determination hasn’t stopped the nascent industry from growing.
Hopkins’ proposal comes amid continued alarms about the psychoactive substances, which can be found in stores and dining establishments across Chicago but don’t face the same testing and labeling requirements as legal weed.
Hopkins pointed to reports about contaminants, even fentanyl, being found in certain products, adding that young people have been sickened after ingesting items purchased from unregulated stores.
In one case, five students at Uplift Community High School in Uptown were reportedly hospitalized in April after consuming unregulated edibles from a nearby smoke shop. Months later, federal authorities ordered some Delta-8 manufacturers to stop using packaging that closely resembles Cheetos, candy and other snacks favored by kids.
Under Hopkins’ plan, only state-licensed marijuana businesses could sell most THC products in Chicago. That includes synthetic cannabislike products containing Delta-8, Delta-10 and THC-O, a powerful substance that was once studied by military researchers as a potential nonlethal incapacitating agent.
Other businesses could only stock hemp-based offerings with negligible amounts of Delta-9 that correspond with the Farm Bill. They also couldn’t call themselves dispensaries, advertise the sale of THC or use iconography commonly associated with weed, like images of a cannabis plant.
Businesses across the city would be affected by the proposed changes, some of which are already flouting state law by marketing themselves as cannabis dispensaries.
“The types of operations that would sell these products tend to be shady operations,” Hopkins said. “If you’re running a convenience store, a mom-and-pop store, and all of a sudden you decide, ‘I’m going to sell these THC products as well,’ it’s a statement about your intentions.
“Do you want to be a good neighbor or not? You might be near a school,” he added. “There’s no regulation like there is with dispensaries that keep them away from schools and parks.”
Each violation of the ordinance would result in a fine of up to $5,000 and could result in the suspension or revocation of an establishment’s city-issued business license. Chicago police could also seize products under the proposal.
State lawmaker calls for regulation — not a ban
When Illinois lawmakers lifted the state’s prohibition on pot in 2020, they promised to diversify the white-dominated industry and use tax dollars from cannabis sales to address the harms of a drug war that disproportionately affected people of color.
Years later, many of the so-called social equity applicants who earned licenses have struggled to secure financing and meet the state’s strict requirements to open. Meanwhile, those selling hemp-derived products are able to undercut the hefty prices found in licensed dispensaries while facing few roadblocks or safety standards.
Ryan McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the powerful Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, said the “concerning trend … gives consumers a false sense of security in what they are buying and consuming.
“The regulated cannabis program in Illinois was created to protect the public by closely controlling the manufacturing and sale of all THC products,” McLaughlin said. “We support Ald. Hopkins in his efforts to reestablish some of those safeguards, as those controls have clearly gone astray.”
Efforts to regulate alternative cannabinoids like Delta-8 have so far fallen short in Springfield, although many states have already taken similar steps or have prohibited hemp-based products. In May, the most recent push failed in the face of opposition from cannabis industry advocates calling for a full ban.
State Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored that bill, said he’s now drafting a measure that creates a regulatory structure “identical” to the legal weed business. It would notably limit sales to people 21 and over, create “rigorous testing and labeling requirements” and impose a new tax on hemp products.
Ford argued that Hopkins’ proposal would shut down businesses, put people out of work and create an underground market for products like Delta-8.
“The city of Chicago should not be banning and eliminating tax revenue,” he said in response to Hopkins’ proposal. “They are right now in a situation where they need as much revenue as possible. My goal is to regulate it and make it safe.”
Hemp seller says pot firms are trying to crush competition
Charles Wu, owner of Chi’Tiva locations in Wicker Park and southwest suburban Worth, said he and other hemp sellers are already working with Ford to create the new standards.
“There’s a statewide initiative by hemp companies to submit to regulation, to be responsible, to test, to be taxed and to expand the market,” Wu said. “From my perspective, this ordinance is an effort to divert attention from the regulatory language that is being drafted.”
He said large weed firms are pushing to ban sales at unlicensed stores to snuff out their new competition.
“They are tying to come up with public safety issues,” he said. “Our perspective is: It’s business, it’s a money grab on their side. They are trying to demonize us on that front.”
Wu insisted that his products are tested, properly packaged and labeled with a code that customers can scan with a cellphone to learn what they’re buying. But he also acknowledged that he’s competing against bad actors who “flout the rules.”
Should the ordinance pass, Wu said he’d be forced to lay off staff and rely solely on Chi’Tiva’s cafes.
“This is their chance to crush the thousand or so hemp businesses out there,” he said, referring to the cannabis companies. “Because if they take us out, the customers either have to go back to the legacy market, or they have to go [to those companies] to buy stuff.
“They just don’t want legitimate competition.”