Hemp products often mislabeled, posing potential danger to consumers, Chicago researcher finds

Lab tests of hemp products sold in Chicago showed wildly varying levels of THC and unexpected cannabinoids in edibles and flowers. Lawmakers are calling for the items to be regulated.

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Oil hemp in two jars and sauceboat on a wood board.

Hemp products like edibles and flowers are not subject to the strict testing requirements of recreational cannabis.

Adobe Stock image

It’s hard to travel a few blocks in Chicago without coming across a store selling hemp-derived products offering feelings of relaxation or a weed-like high — from joints to edibles that look like kid-friendly treats. But unlike medical or recreational cannabis, the items aren’t regulated.

A new study found such products, typically sold at smoke shops and gas stations, often have a higher potency than advertised and fail to mention which psychoactive substances they contain, adding a new level of urgency to lawmakers’ efforts to regulate an industry with few guardrails.

That’s because hemp, a weaker botanical cousin of cannabis, contains far less Delta-9 THC — the chemical compound, or cannabinoid, best known for getting weed users high. Under Illinois law, hemp products are not supposed to have more than 0.3% THC potency by weight, compared with recreational weed that is often 20% or more.

But testing at the University of Illinois Chicago by researcher Jennifer Bash showed that out of 15 edible products and 17 flower samples marketed as hemp, the vast majority were mislabeled.

Among the findings of her paper published last month:

  • Eighty-seven percent of the edibles tested had inaccurately labeled cannabinoid profiles. Some were labeled as “Delta-8” or “Delta-10” — lab-created compounds similar to Delta-9 — but contained other unlabeled cannabinoids.
  • One edible contained 70 times the legal dosage limit for total THC under Illinois’ legal weed law.
  • Some edibles had lower THC potency than expected, but other samples were up to five times higher than the label suggested.
  • All of the flower samples had inaccurate cannabinoid profiles on their labels and inaccurate dosages.

Bash, who is now a consultant, says the study was meant to provide a snapshot of products being sold outside regulated cannabis dispensaries.

“People just have no idea what they’re putting in their bodies, and that’s just terrifying,” Bash says.

Besides gummies and joints, some of the products tested are packaged to look like well-known snack brands like Cheetos, Warheads, Cheez-Its and Kool-Aid.

Her paper noted the hospitalizations of five students from an Uptown high school who overdosed last April after consuming edibles from a neighborhood smoke shop that sold hemp products.

Bash says her lab work was focused on types of cannabinoids and potency. She didn’t test for bacterial or fungal contamination, pesticides, heavy metals or residual solvents. Legal cannabis is tested for all of those.

Different colored gummy bears in a ceramic bowl.

Sampling of unregulated hemp-based gummies purchased in Chicago.

Stephanie Zimmermann/Sun-Times

False advertising

Sgt. Ari Briskman, a drug expert with the Lake County Sheriff’s office, says no one is holding retailers accountable for selling items that are labeled as hemp but don’t conform to the hemp potency rules and don’t meet legal weed standards.

“It creates this Wild West atmosphere,” Briskman says.

Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) has been sounding the alarm over what he describes as “a completely unregulated sub-industry where you don’t know as a consumer what you’re buying.”

Hopkins has already introduced two pieces of legislation in the City Council that would ban the sale of alternative cannabinoids outside of licensed weed dispensaries and impose tighter zoning restrictions on unregulated sellers. But he acknowledges those proposals don’t go far enough.

“These are piecemeal solutions that really are less than ideal,” he says. “And we need to enact either an outright ban on the state level or layer another set of regulations on Delta-8 and the cannabis derivatives, just like we have on the licensed cannabis products, to create an even playing field.”

Hopkins says dispensaries face “unfair” competition from sketchy stores that don’t have to undergo the “costly, time-consuming process” of earning a state license to sell cannabis, which is subject to strict testing regulations.

Consumers are “being ripped off” and aren’t being sold what’s advertised, he says.

And he says unregulated products are gobbling up potential state cannabis tax money, which hit $451.9 million last fiscal year on revenue of more than $1.5 billion.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, has introduced a bill in Springfield that would create a strict regulatory framework for businesses dealing in psychoactive hemp products.

Under the proposal, hemp-based products would be tested, labeled accurately, taxed and only sold to people 21 and older.

Ford says those steps would address key public safety issues surrounding the sale of these products, specifically that minors are currently allowed to purchase them and consumers “don’t know what they’re getting.”

A previous debate over whether to tightly control hemp products or ban them outright upended cannabis reform talks last year in Springfield.

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