Holly Bell Talks Contamination, Inhalables, & the Future of Hemp Regulations in Florida

In this post:

  • Regulating Amidst Crisis
  • Issue of Mislabeling
  • The Trend of Lead Contamination
  • Protecting Consumer Health
  • Raising the Bar on Testing
  • Inhalable Hemp in Florida
  • The Future of Hemp Regulations
  • A Game-Changer for Farmers

Holly Bell, Florida’s Director of Cannabis didn’t expect to roll out the state’s hemp program amidst a pandemic. She was already working through the transition from the formal design phase to the unpredictable real-world of implementation. But she’s determined to stay the course.

This job is the biggest puzzle I've ever had to figure out, says Bell.” I’m very lucky to have a large knowledgeable and experienced team to work with. I’m also lucky to work for a commissioner who had the vision and gave us the guidance and leadership to execute it.“

Regulating Amidst Crisis

Amidst the crisis, Bell’s team at the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS) opened hemp license applications to the entire state. They’ve already reviewed and accepted more than 500 farmers to begin growing this year. The organization is also getting out to inspect hemp food establishments in search of violations of safety and compliance.

“COVID did slow us down with inspections a little bit, but we still go out and look for these violations. The biggest concern here is finding a pattern of product contamination and occasional mislabeling,” says Bell.  

The Issue of Mislabeling

Occasional mislabeling is a problem because it means consumers aren’t getting what they paid for. For example, inspectors have tested products labeled “CBD” that have zero trace of the cannabinoid in the ingredients.  “That's why it's so vital for consumers to check the QR code on the label and read the COA to make sure it's safe and you are getting what you paid for,” says Bell.  

While unacceptable, Bell admits mislabeling is a minor and infrequent issue compared to the health risks posed by more rampant product contamination.

The Trend of Lead Contamination

“The most disturbing trend we found was lead contamination in tinctures,” says Bell.

After that, Bell’s team analyzed the pattern. And with the help of Dr. Serena Giovinazzi, recall coordinator of FDACS Div. of Food Safety, they found the products were cross contaminated by adulterated bottles and droppers. To figure this out, they worked with the manufacturers and processors of these products and discovered the products initially went into the bottle safely, passing all contamination tests.

But after sitting in the containers for a while under conditions such as high heat and sun, they became degraded. And by the time the products were finally pulled off the shelf and purchased, they were polluted with lead. “We’re guessing the bottles are probably coming from China but we don’t know for sure,” says Bell.

Protecting Consumer Health

Until the investigation is complete, customers simply can’t be sure that a product is 100% lead-free. At least not at a glance. But they can dig a little deeper for peace of mind.

For starters, consumers can check the testing date published on the Certificate of Authentication (COA). If the product was tested over a year ago, it’s been in transit and sitting on shelves for at least that long. In that time, adulteration and natural age degradation is possible depending on the material of the container.

On the other hand, a more recent testing date can be a marker for safety because it means the product has not been sitting as long. Additionally, consumers can investigate the processor or manufacturer of the product before they buy. FDACS publishes an “approved source” list, which indicates which hemp companies meet a high standard of inspection and trusted level of quality at their facility.

“This is how we help ensure consumer safety,” says Bell.

Raising the Bar on Testing

To overcome such quality issues in the future, Bell sees the hemp industry following in the footsteps of the food market, which faced similar problems years ago. In response to rampant contamination, the food industry set standards for safe packaging requirements and instituted a high bar for product testing. In fact, the food industry led the way by testing with ISO/IEC 17025:2017 accredited labs with proven methodologies.

Accurate lab testing makes sure consumers won’t become sick when ingesting the products. If the industry isn't safe for the consumer, people will suffer. And ensuring consumer safety is the only way the industry will grow. So laboratory testing is a vital link in the success of the hemp,” says Bell.

In addition to testing the product itself, Bell considered another solution to the contamination problem.  “Maybe the container needs to be tested as well. Maybe we need a lab test done on the packaging before it can be used,” says Bell.

Laboratory testing will continue to play a leading role as Florida’s hemp program expands. While regulations initially covered crop cultivation and hemp-derived food and supplements only, the next phase covers inhalables as well.

Inhalable Hemp in Florida

As of July 1st, Florida’s House Bill 921 incorporates smokable flowers, vapes, and pre-rolls into the Hemp Program. FDACS must now create rules to protect consumers from false advertising and contamination in this new product segment.

On July 9th at 9 am EST, FDACS Hemp Subcommittee will hold a virtual public meeting to discuss their proposed rules. {On July 9th, attend the meeting using this link} The regulations will look a lot like those for ingestible hemp–with a key difference. Only adults 21 and older will be able to partake.

In terms of labeling, smokable hemp producers will have to work with designated laboratories to test their products. They will then have to produce labels that tie back to the COA saying the cartridge or flower is free of contaminants.

But FDACS isn’t sure if vitamin E should be on the list. Vitamin E in vapes made disastrous headlines late last year for its potential role in lung related illness and death. But the direct link was never fully proven.

The team is looking at vitamin E and studying it quite extensively. We’ve reached out to other states and subject matter experts as well. We don't have a firm answer, but we are looking into it,” says Bell.

FDACS hopes the July 9th hearing will be an effective forum for the public to offer insights, such as thoughts they may have about vitamin E contamination. Following the meeting, the committee will revise the rules and repost them with the goal of implementing them as quickly as possible.

“Right now you can find smokable flower at any Circle K even though it's not legal. But soon, once it’s regulated, you could start seeing it at Walgreens, CVS and your local coffee shops,” says Bell.

The Future of Hemp Regulations

With smokable hemp rules and implementation on the horizon, Holly’s team is laser focused. They aren’t actively working on measures to amend the program in the future, but they’re looking closely at what the USDA might do this Fall. In October, the USDA’s interim hemp rules will expire and Holly has a hunch that the federal agency will make at least two major changes.

“For example, The DEA registration requirement for labs was waived till October. I think there will be a change there and the question is how involved will the DEA get with labs moving forward,” says Bell.

This will certainly disrupt the industry, but DEA requirements will also elevate testing standards across the country.

A Game-Changer for Farmers

Additionally, Holly thinks the USDA will consider remediation options for farmers with hot plots. For example, someone with a controlled substance license could bring the crop down so the farmer doesn’t have to lose the whole plot.

There are processing and extracting units that are so advanced they can strip out cannabinoids after harvest. This would be huge for hemp farmers,” said Bell.

Such recourse would mean that farmers have a chance to save their plot, avoid penalties, and secure their purchase contracts. If the USDA were to enact this measure it would set a new federal standard: One that states like Florida could follow in amending its own hemp program in the future.

The story of hemp is still in the editing phase, but Bell and her team have stepped up to the challenge of its creation. They hope to draft a final version that ensures consumers are safe, farmers are protected, and the industry flourishes. Stay tuned.

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