On March 8, 2023

Renewed THC potency proposal stirs the pot in Senate

By Aubrey Weaver

Editor’s note: Aubrey Weaver is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard from familiar faces on a familiar policy last week: THC potency limits for cannabis concentrates. 

A bill in the committee, S.72, would remove the current statutory limit of 60% for concentrates sold in shops — products like hashish and oils and waxes that contain higher amounts of the chemical in cannabis that gets people high.

The same no-limit policy was introduced last session as part of the cannabis omnibus bill, S.188, which further fleshed out regulations in Vermont’s fledgling recreational pot industry. But legislators then made a last-minute decision to impose a 60% limit on concentrates before Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill. That’s what sponsor Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, wants to undo.

The renewed potency proposal has quickly stirred debate in a recent committee hearing.

In favor of the new bill was James Pepper, chair of the state Cannabis Control Board, who worked with Sears and others on both bills. Also testifying in favor recently was Geoffrey Pizzutillo, executive director and co-founder of the Vermont Growers’ Association. The two were joined in support of the bill by Jessilyn Dolan, president of the American Nurses Association for Vermont and founder of the Vermont Cannabis Nurses Association.

Testifying against the bill was consultant Jill Sudhoff-Guerin, from Maidstone Public Relations, speaking on behalf of the Vermont Medical Society. 

The testimony Thursday, March 2,exhibited a host of contradictions between claims made by those in each camp, resulting in a your-word-against-mine debate and clashing research. 

Contradictions arose about the methods for making THC concentrates. Pepper said each method “will produce a final product that is cannabis-concentrate well above 60% THC potency.” 

Yet the Vermont Medical Society claims this isn’t the case, citing an American Academy of Pediatrics study from 2019 that found extraction methods that yield concentrations with THC content percentages between 39% and 60%. 

Sudhoff-Guerin made clear throughout her testimony that not only does the medical society oppose lifting the potency caps, but it would also favor prohibiting chemical extraction methods and oil-based cannabis products, except those previously authorized for medical use. 

Other incongruities emerged from discussions of how potency caps impact the illicit market for cannabis products. 

Pepper argued that the “illicit market thrives on prohibition.” And he alluded to a control board presentation last year that said: “A prohibition on solid concentrates with THC percentage greater than 60% is likely to keep all solid concentrate sales in the illicit market.”

Sudhoff-Guerin disputed that claim using case study examples from Colorado and California, which have no potency limits, and have showed illegal markets for the products are still thriving, she said. 

Sudhoff-Guerin would also make claims about the potential public health impacts of lifting the potency limit. “We’re seeing increased visits to the ER; we’re seeing people that have any sort of mental health diagnosis having that exacerbated by the high potency cannabis use,” she said, “and we know that our state is struggling with psychiatric issues and capacity right now… Right now our mental health capacity is just not there. We are not meeting the needs of Vermonters,” she added.

But a Cannabis Control Board report from December, warned that the health risks of prohibiting high-potency products outweigh the risks of consuming higher THC concentrations legally.  “Contaminants, additives and other impurities present in unregulated products could create health impacts that greatly outweigh any benefit resulting from a prohibition on high-potency concentrates,” the report stated.

The hearing on S.72 suggests the debates are far from finished.

“We’re saying go slow,” said Sudhoff-Guerin. “There’s no reason for us to raise this potency limit right now. The market just came online in October, and everybody’s meeting or surpassing their goals on sales.”

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