Employees find no easy answers with hemp

By Crystal Burns

Tennesseans using hemp or hemp products for medicinal purposes should beware, especially if their employers require drug tests.

The Gibson County Workforce Development Board hosted a Lunch and Learn called H.E.M.P. – Helping Employers Make Policy last week at the Ed Jones Agri-Plex in Trenton. Leaders said the session boasted the largest attendance of any the board has offered.

Panelists included Jennifer Byrd, clinical pharmacist at the Jackson Clinic and a professor at Union University; Lori Chandler and Chad Walker, owners of Hub City Hemp with five locations in West Tennessee; Amy Dove, vice president of WorkCare Resources, Inc.; Heather Marie Kelly, extension specialist, field crops pathologist and IPM coordinator at the UT Institute of Agriculture; Annie Self, plant certification administrator with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture; and Danny Lewis, Gibson County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy. Gibson County Economic Developer Kinglsey Brock served as moderator.

Hemp, which is derived from the same plant as marijuana, is defined as a form of the cannabis plant containing a THC concentration of not more than 0.3%. Marijuana has a higher THC concentration (THC is the main ingredient that makes people feel high).

“THC is a dangerous drug,” Dove said. “That’s why it’s illegal.”

Employers that participate in the Tennessee Drug Free Workplace Program are required to test for THC.

Dove, whose company provides drug screens, physicals and nursing service for injured workers as well as drug screening and DNA testing to the public, said there are no safeguards for using hemp products such as CBD oil even though pure CBD contains no THC.

“The best thing you can do for your employees is to educate,” she said.

Chandler and Walker said they don’t give medical advice, but they ask customers what they want from their products. One of the first questions they ask is if the customer works for an employer that drug tests. If so, they steer him/her to CBD oil products. If the answer is no, they show the customer full spectrum CBD products.

They argued for the relief CBD gives some people battling chronic conditions and said their products are cost effective ways to keep employees productive.

“I think there’s lots of benefits,” Walker said. “Not much will change until employers say I’m cool with you taking CBD.”

History of hemp

According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, hemp has been an important crop throughout the history of the United States. By the mid-1600s, hemp was used to produce cordage, cloth, canvas, sacks and paper. It was widely grown during the Revolutionary War years as it was strategically important for maritime use for lines, rigging, sail canvas and caulking on ships. George Washington encouraged hemp production, and Thomas Jefferson bred improved varieties and invented a special brake for crushing the plant’s stems during fiber processing.

In December 2018, the U.S. government passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp at the federal level. The bill removed hemp from Sch. 1 of the Controlled Substances Act and reclassified it as an agricultural commodity. With the bill’s passage, hemp-derived products, including CBD, are legal at the federal level, but the bill does not preempt state and tribal laws that regulate hemp in a more restrictive level.

Byrd said that CBD is just added to the list of natural medicines with little scientific evidence to support its value.

“I don’t deny any opinions about CBD,” she said. “Look at what we have proven right now. The literature out there supporting its use now is in seizure reduction, especially in children.”

Byrd said she advices patients asking about CBD to do their research and talk with their pharmacist about any medications they take.

Regulation

Self said the first hemp program was a pilot in which the Department of Agriculture had to report everything it did to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). With the passage of the Farm Bill of 2018, regulations loosened tremendously, but to grow hemp in Tennessee, you must have a license. The department doesn’t test the quality of hemp but does THC content testing, Self said.

Kelley said there are currently no pesticides approved for use on hemp, so growers rely on intensive manual labor to keep their crops weed free and insect free. She said consumers demand the quality of hemp, and most growers want to produce a clean, organic crop to supply the market. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is looking at allowing some sprays on hemp.

Walker said there is some “junk” out there.

“That’s the bad thing about the industry,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to get into it because it’s a booming business. You’ve got to do it right.”

Byrd noted that the FDA has no strong stance on hemp and reminded consumers that over-the-counter products are not verified. The FDA is responsible for checking label claims, but with so many new products hitting the market every day, it’s impossible to keep up.

Working backwards

Lewis said from the law enforcement perspective, the new hemp laws are like working backwards. He gave an example of an officer pulling over a driver with an open package of hemp flower in the vehicle. It looks like marijuana, and there is no state lab to test THC percentage.

“If it comes back to us as THC, we’re going to cite you into court,” he said. “We’re kinda dealing with this backward in my opinion. I’m not totally against CBD oil, but I’m not taking a chance because it’s not regulated.”

He also said that a narcotics dog can’t tell the difference between marijuana and hemp.

What’s next?

Brock posed questions about companies located in states that have legalized medical marijuana and/or recreational marijuana.

Dove said some of those states still require employee drug testing programs, which are important safety protocols.

“My job is to keep you safe and to protect you from those employees who have a serious issue with substance abuse or addiction,” she said. “My greatest fear is that people will jump ship with the Tennessee Drug Free program.”

She urges employers to set policy and follow that policy consistently.

For more information on the Gibson County Workforce Development Board, contact the Humboldt Chamber of Commerce at 784-1842, the Greater Gibson County Area Chamber of Commerce at 855-0973 or the Milan Chamber of Commerce at 686-7494.

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