New bud in town: Is hemp flower legal?

No, you’re not in California. These jars of bud are industrial hemp for sale at Higher Education on West Main Street. Staff photo No, you’re not in California. These jars of bud are industrial hemp for sale at Higher Education on West Main Street. Staff photo

It looks like bud. It smells like high-grade reefer. Its different strains have names like Frostbite and Pink Panther.

And after Darryl Rojas bought some hemp flower at Higher Education on West Main Street, he had the police at his door, just as he might if he were smoking fully loaded cannabis here in Virginia.

The legality of hemp flower is still a bit hazy.

Local purveyors insist the bud is legal because it’s hemp, a relative of marijuana that contains very low levels (under 0.3 percent) of THC, the ingredient that gets you high. Both hemp and marijuana contain CBD, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid believed to have multiple therapeutic benefits.

In 2018, the General Assembly allowed doctors to recommend CBD oils for medical conditions.

Just a few weeks ago, Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill that opens up the production of industrial hemp for commercial purposes.

Since March 21, 360 people have gotten permits to plant about 4,000 acres in Virginia this year, with another 100 applications to be processed, says Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesperson Elaine Lidholm.

Rojas, 48, sees a “brewing controversy with law enforcement and legal CBD users.” When he smoked the hemp flowers at his Belmont apartment, neighbors called the cops, who showed up at his door, he says. He worries that suspicion of the leafy product will disproportionately affect minorities, and wonders if white students and professors buying the buds are similarly hassled.

The officer who talked to Rojas was unaware hemp buds were being sold by local retailers, and suggested to Rojas that he keep the wrapper should questions about its legality come up again.

A clerk at Higher Education, who declined to give his name because he’s not authorized to speak for the store, says the hemp flower comes legally from Nevada and Florida. Under the 2018 federal Farm Bill, states may not interfere with interstate transportation of industrial hemp.

It’s good for anxiety and pain relief, and “kicks in almost immediately,” he says.

Hemp flowers are also available at Carytown Tobacco on the Downtown Mall, and the Quik Mart on Grady Avenue sells Hemp Mania, seven grams for $29.99.

At the Virginia ag department, Erin Williams is the hemp policy guru. On the legality of selling hemp buds, she says, “Ultimately it’s a decision for law enforcement and commonwealth’s attorneys whether the product is legal or in violation” of Virginia law.

While people can now register to grow, deal, or process industrial hemp, “We advise those entities they should not sell raw bud to someone who has not registered under the Industrial Hemp law,” she says. Growers in Virginia are told, “don’t sell it at the farmers market or to restaurants.”

However, processed hemp fiber or CBD oil can be possessed by anyone, she says.

Charlottesville police spokesman Tyler Hawn referred a call about the leafy substance to city Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania, who had not responded at press time. Given that hemp flowers look and smell just like their illegal cousin, it’s hard to know how local police will be able to tell the difference.

For Rojas, with other states legally cultivating pot, the bigger question is, “Why are Virginians not cashing in?”