Three weeks after a new state law cracking down on hemp products that could appeal to children went into effect, the state agriculture department announced it had already uncovered almost 70,000 illegal products from 500 hemp stores.
Some examples of the products targeted by “Operation Kandy Krush:” knockoff packages of Nerds, Sour Patch Kids, Skittles and Jolly Ranchers packed with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in hemp and marijuana.
Tampa Bay hemp retailers say the state crackdown on such products is an attempt by Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration to delegitimize their industry. Former Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who helped establish the state’s legal hemp industry, amounted the sweep to “mass hysteria.”
The narrative that kids are threatened by “high-potency hemp products” found more footing during a round table discussion at Tampa General Hospital on Wednesday. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson, two Republican lawmakers and three health experts explored the risks of kids getting their hands on candy-like hemp products.
State Sen. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, recounted a story about a child in her district who was sharing THC-laced gummy worms to friends at school. Justin Garcia, medical director at the Florida Poison Information Center’s Tampa outpost, chimed in that he’s getting more callers with similar stories.
No one has died from a marijuana overdose alone, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But Garcia said children are increasingly visiting the emergency room because they’re vomiting, sedated, distressed or experiencing seizures after ingesting THC. Calls on the subject spiked from 77 in 2021 to 933 last year, he said.
Almut Winterstein, a University of Florida professor and director of the school’s medical marijuana research consortium, said child-proof packaging makes sense, particularly considering that marijuana and hemp are often consumed in gummy form.
But hemp advocates question the state’s enforcement in the name of child safety, especially after Republicans, Simpson included, pushed to outlaw key hemp products entirely this year.
An initial draft of a new state law regulating hemp outlawed delta-8 THC, an ingredient in hemp plants that produces a psychoactive effect but is federally legal. The law that eventually passed imposed more narrow restrictions, chiefly the ban on products that appeal to children and an age requirement of 21 for purchasing hemp products.
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In Florida, medical marijuana is legal for qualifying patients, though it remains illegal at the federal level. Hemp products have been federally legal for recreational use since 2018. In 2019, the state agriculture department under Fried started building a regulatory framework for such products, including labeling, packaging and testing requirements.
The distinction between hemp and marijuana is a subtle one: it depends on whether the products are derived from a plant that contains less than 0.3% of a specific type of THC, delta-9. Plants that meet that requirement are hemp plants, even if they contain other psychoactive cannabinoids like delta-8. Plants that exceed the 0.3% delta-9 threshold are marijuana.
Micky Morrison, owner of St. Pete 420, a hemp retail shop, pulled one product from her shelves in advance of the state law going into effect July 1. She concluded that candy ropes laced with THC might be “questionable.” But she said the products state regulators are showing off as examples of offenders are common in “shady smoke shops and gas stations,” not “anywhere reputable.”
She hasn’t seen state inspectors since she opened. “They don’t seem to have the manpower to enforce the existing regulations, let alone more stringent restrictions now,” Morrison said.
Sixteen hemp retailers in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were ordered to stop selling certain products in July. More than 1,500 retailers operate in the same geographic area.
Carlos Hermida, owner of Chillum Mushroom and Hemp Dispensary in Tampa, has clashed with food safety inspectors before. In 2022, they ordered him to stop selling psychedelic mushroom products. But when inspectors stopped by his shop last week to root out products unsafe for children, they came up empty, he said.
Hermida said Operation Kandy Krush is “fear-mongering.”
“We know people are going to make a big deal out of it, because they’re honestly ignorant about what cannabis can do,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fried said she watches with frustration as her successor undoes her efforts to set up a functional marketplace for hemp. While she understands the age restriction, she wouldn’t have sent food safety inspectors into shops less than a month after a vague law took effect, she said.
“I would have made sure there’s a grace period and communication,” she said. “It’s your job to create a working relationship with these businesses as the regulator.”
Simpson said these initial inspections have been about education and getting obviously illegal products off the shelves. His agency is still drafting rules that would further govern exactly what’s outlawed because of its appeal to children.
“If they’re selling legal products in a legal fashion, we’re proud for them to continue to do their business,” he said.