The popularity of CBD products is on the rise, with an increasing number of state legislatures following a federal move to legalize marijuana’s hemp cousin.
But the News4 I-Team has learned the field tests commonly used by law enforcement to detect drugs haven’t kept pace, resulting in legal headaches for some CBD users whose products test positive for pot.
What’s more, many government-run forensic labs aren’t yet capable of measuring the exact amount of THC — the chemical that can produce a high — in most CBD or marijuana products, a necessary tool to help distinguish between the two.
While marijuana is high in THC, it’s usually found in only trace amounts in hemp-derived CBD, which many claim has health benefits. Federal law passed last year allows for hemp-derived CBD products with THC no greater than 0.3 percent, prompting many state legislatures to follow suit.
But the testing technology “is woefully behind the where it needs to be,” said James Moody, a D.C. attorney who specializes in cannabis law. “I don't think anyone anticipated the rise in the use of CBD.”
He’s among those sounding the alarm over drug field tests designed to help police quickly identify the possible presence of illicit drugs.
Law enforcement have historically used the kits to detect the presence of cannabis, which could indicate marijuana. But because hemp and marijuana are both cannabinoids derived from the cannabis sativa plant, police don’t have an easy way to tell the difference.
“Judges are being told that [a] product is being field tested and is coming back positive for THC, and that's factually incorrect,” Moody said. “They very well could be possessing nothing other than CBD, which is completely legal.”
Michael, a Virginia man who asked News4 not to use his last name, is a CBD vendor who knows firsthand the limitations of the field tests.
He was detained last year during a police raid of a Washington, D.C., party where others were selling marijuana. While D.C. legalized marijuana possession in small amounts, it’s illegal to sell it.
But Michael said he wasn’t worried about being arrested for selling CBD “because I was confident in our products,” which he said had been vetted by a private lab to determine its low THC content.
That confidence was tested, however, when a D.C. police officer placed samples of his product in a disposable field test and it turned purple — the color traditionally indicating marijuana.
"I was shocked,” Michael said. “I literally was like: Is this really happening right now?"
He said police seized his inventory but he was able to avoid arrest after showing the officer the lab results detailing the product’s content.
The I-Team found another case — this time out of Virginia — in which a store owner was arrested and charged with felony distribution of marijuana in March.
A spokeswoman for the Fredericksburg Police Department told News4 an undercover agent was acting on a tip when he first purchased what appeared to be marijuana in a CBD canister from Kyle Traugh’s store.
“It’s always a concern to us that there may be an illegal substance, [whether] someone's selling it on the streets or if they're selling it in a store,” spokeswoman Sarah Kirkpatrick said.
Traugh declined a formal interview, citing his pending legal case, but allowed News4 into his shop and showed the product in question — a bright black and green canister of “CBD hemp flowers.”
It looks and smells similar to pot, though the packaging claims the product contains less than 0.3 percent THC. Traugh told the I-Team he discussed its legality with the distributor prior to stocking it in his store.
Kirkpatrick said when police sent the material to a state lab, it came back as positive for the presence of THC. She acknowledged the exact amount of THC was not determined. Police soon raided and seized many of Traugh’s products, which included stash cans and other paraphernalia, and field tests for what Traugh said were CBD came back positive for cannabis, Kirkpatrick said.
That raid came in late March, just days after the Virginia General Assembly changed the definition of marijuana to mirror federal law. Now, Virginia allows for “finished” hemp-derived products, such as CBD, as long as they contain no more than 0.3 percent THC. Marijuana remains illegal.
Police and even state prosecutors in Virginia have not been widely alerted to the new law, the I-Team has found, which was signed into law on March 21. Bill sponsors passed it with an emergency clause, making it effective immediately.
Kirkpatrick said her agency’s goal is to enforce state law.
“Everything is going to have to change and keep up with the laws,” Kirkpatri