Op Ed: Policy Makers Must Act to Stop Growing Drug Crisis

As the drug epidemic continues to plague our nation, policy makers struggle to implement real solutions to ending the crisis. Some lawmakers focus on funding law enforcement to combat drug dealers, while others want to provide social services to hit at the root of drug use. Regardless of where you are on the problem, much of the effort is focused on the extremely dangerous drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamines. These drugs take priority over less harmful narcotics due to lack of resources, but they are not the only drug problem on the rise. There is a clear consensus from state departments of agriculture that the lack of guidance, as well as enforcement from the federal government, is making regulating legal and illegal hemp products a nightmare. Much of the confusion is leading to misuse by adults and abuse by children.

Legalized in West Virginia in 2018 and at the federal level in 2019, industrial hemp legislation was intended to create a robust market for hemp products. Advocates have claimed the plant is extremely versatile with uses from rope and concrete to potential health benefits. Despite the utility of the plant, much of the market has focused on the effects of CBD, THC and Delta-8. That means most hemp products are smoked or consumed by pets and humans. The problem is we still lack an understanding of the effects these products have on the body, as well as the best agricultural practices for production. Without clear direction it’s paramount we figure out regulatory standards to ensure the health of our citizens and the future of the industry.

By law, a hemp product may only contain .3% total THC-Delta-9. The problem is the current regulation focuses on only this chemical derivative, leaving the rest wildly unregulated. Since the 2018 Farm Bill, we have seen the prominence of other products such as Delta-8 and 10. With no guidance from the federal government, these products face no scrutiny, as bad actors take the opportunity to pander illegal substances. The Department has found several products that claim to be hemp but, upon further testing, are marijuana or synthetic substances. It is nearly impossible to go after these criminals as many use out-of-state shell companies that disappear once they are found out. These companies hide behind the confusion and lack of enforcement we are seeing from the federal government.

Unfortunately, these products continue to find their way into the hands of children. Current federal law sets no age limit on these products. The only thing required is a disclaimer stating, “not intended for those under 18,” leaving much of the discretion to store owners. Despite our best efforts for awareness and education, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture is not a law enforcement agency. We don’t wear badges or carry firearms, so we rely on voluntary compliance and court orders. When situations turn hostile, we call on our law enforcement partners which adds pressure and additional responsibilities to their duties.

To protect the public and children, it will take a two-pronged approach. First, we must develop more encompassing guidelines to properly regulate all chemical compounds in the hemp plant, as well as put forth safe, agricultural practices for the industry. We can tackle this by working with our congressional members and other state departments of agriculture through the 2023 Farm Bill and FDA guidelines. At the same time, we need to step up funding for law enforcement agencies at all levels. Regardless of regulations, the WVDA will need law enforcement cooperation to protect the public. Stopping the drug blight is paramount to West Virginia’s future. It should be a top priority for any state or local policy maker.

Kent A. Leonhardt
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture

The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials who sits on the Board of Public Works.