CHARLOTTE – One of the hottest new cannabinoids on the market is dividing North Carolina’s fledgling hemp industry.
Enter Delta-8 THC, otherwise known as “Weed’s Little Brother.”
It’s the less-potent, less well-known cousin of Delta-9 THC, the chief psychoactive compound in marijuana, and it’s a booming business, especially in states like North Carolina, where marijuana remains illegal.
“That’s been our biggest sales for this year, really,” said Tanya Durand, owner of The Hemp Store with locations in Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Wake Forest. “We still have quite a bit of CBD sales. The younger crowd is more interested in Delta-8, and the effects it produces.”
Proponents say Delta-8 is a safe and legal alternative for consumers seeking an intoxicating buzz thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives. They say it also helps with a range of ailments, from anxiety and depression to insomnia, nausea, pain, even night terrors.
But critics question how legal it is, and believe it’s a way to skirt federal law that currently bans Delta-9.
Given the regulatory gray area, some local hemp farmers are steering clear.
“We don’t want to go on the record about Delta-8,” said one producer. “This is a product we’ve stayed away from.”
But as hemp prices slump, others are finding some much-needed relief in the Delta-8 business.
“It hasn’t been the only thing that has kept us afloat,” said Dan Sturdevant, managing director of Nature’s Highway, headquartered in Charlotte. “But it’s certainly been a shot in the arm.”
Hemp, a heritage crop
Hemp production in the Old North State dates back to the 1700s.
The Tuscarora Indians, who were native to the state, were well-known hemp gatherers, who reportedly spun it into yarn and wove textiles from it.
By 1937, however, hemp, along with marijuana, ceased to be grown legally. It was officially banned altogether in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act.
That all started to change in 2014 when federal legislation cracked open the door for some farming by allowing states to create hemp pilot programs or to conduct research on hemp cultivation.
Within a few short years, North Carolina became one of the fastest-growing states in hemp production.
In 2017, the state had around 2200 permitted acres. That number jumped to around 17,400 permitted acres by 2019. It hovers around 14,000 today.
“We have a history of growing specialty crops—tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton. There’s that knowledge base with farmers,” said Paul Ulanch, executive director of Crop Commercialization at NC Biotechnology Center. “That’s why we are going to see North Carolina be one of the leaders in production.”
Uses range from textiles to prosthetics and, of course, CBD, also known as cannabidiol. That market alone is expected to grow globally to $5.3 billion by 2025.
Back in 2019, Nature’s Highway, formerly Carolina CannTech, jumped into the CBD market, one of hundreds of companies to join the rush in North Carolina.
“There was a definite race to supply this growing demand for CBD,” said Sturdevant.
Investors poured around $1.3 million into the Charlotte-based seed-to-sale hemp startup to complete the build out of their own extraction lab.
The plan was to grow bulk hemp on site at a 4-acre farm in Neeses, South Carolina. Then, extract oil and sell it at a massive profit.
It didn’t quite pan out that way, Sturdevant said.
As bigger players flooded the market, the price of hemp CBD biomass plunged—from $38 per pound in 2019 to $8 per pound the following year—a 79% drop.
The result: a glut of cheap CBD oil sitting on the market for about the last year and a half, said Sturdevant.
Many smaller producers and extractors have gone bust. Others, like Nature’s Highway, are pivoting quickly.
To meet market demand, they’ve spun out a consumer line of Delta-8 products. They sell tinctures and gummies directly from their website and vape cartridges to distributors and stores.
What they don’t sell is bulk Delta-8 distillate. To do so would mean investing in specialized equipment; given the uncertainty in the market, it’s too risky, said Sturdevant.
Meanwhile, they’ve cut their production way back. Back in 2019, they planted 40 acres. This year, they’re only planting four.
“We’re definitely hoping for some legislative clarity,” he said. “We’re holding on until early 2022 when a lot of places are predicting that the price will rebound, and we can get back into the bulk oil sales market again.”
The cannabis landscape is changing quickly.
Last week, Senate Democrats introduced a bill to federally de-criminalize cannabis. North Carolina’s is also debating the legalization of medical marijuana.
“With the national interest in cannabis at an all-time high, it remains to be seen what will happen with Delta-8 THC law at the federal level,” said Paul Adams, North Carolina Agriculture’s industrial hemp manager who leads the state’s pilot program.
He admits there’s currently a glut in production for hemp material, especially CBD.
“The hemp industry is developing,” he said. “Flooded markets, issues with manufacturing and supply, are always going to be factors that impact price, especially for a new industry.”
Given Delta-8’s ambiguous legal status, he adds that he can’t say for sure if it’s helping to prop up the state’s hemp industry. But it shouldn’t be, he said. “Price for CBD is low right now, but with diversifying markets, fiber mostly, we could see the price come back. The program will continue, and people are still planting.”
Still, there’s also a lot of uncertainty.
“Our experience, and what we observe in other states, is that the development of industrial hemp and any legalized cannabis always has challenges that are not easy to foresee,” Adams said. “There will have to be many details worked out related to the licensing and permitting from field to retail.”
Hemp producers and retailers, meanwhile, remain hopeful.
“If this bill passes as is, we don’t foresee it negatively affecting the Hemp and CBD industry,” Durand said. “Most people will still not have access to medical marijuana. If these restrictions don’t change, we believe there will still be a market for CBD and other hemp products.”