Steven Henshaw: Berks DA says probe of vaping shops yields smoking materials stronger than legal hemp

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May 19—In response to complaints from parents, school district administrators and others about stores selling vape liquids and edibles that can cause a high or unpredictable effects, undercover Berks County detectives went on a buying spree, visiting 14 vape-and-smoke shops and mini-marts.

Their shopping cart included liquid cartridges with labels such as Pineapple Express Delta 8 & Shatter, and gummy candy with labels such as Code Red Delta 8 Blueberry Pie and Blue Razz Twisted X, all containing THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, authorities said.

Many of the products' labels disguised or omitted the fact they contained THC, and claimed to contain hemp or hemp derivatives, which suggest they are not intoxicating, authorities said.

Hemp consists of the stem portion of the cannabis plant and, unlike marijuana, is benign and thus not a controlled substance in Pennsylvania.

What the shops were selling, however, is not hemp, at least according to state regulations, District Attorney John T. Adams said in a press conference Thursday in the county Services Center.

An array of these products were displayed on a table during the press conference.

Adams called the press conference to discuss the ongoing investigation initiated by his Berks County Drug Task Force as a result of complaints from various sources, especially school districts, which report worsening vaping problems among teens.

"We received complaints from many of the school districts in Berks County as they are seeing an uptick in the vaping problems in the schools," he said. "Hamburg School District has gone so far as to install vape detectors in their bathrooms."

The vape and other illegal products confiscated that were on display were taken only from those stores for which authorities received complaints.

They're not the only stores selling these products, Adams said, but Thursday's press conference serves as notice to store owners and clerks that they should stop the sale of illegal THC products or face legal consequences.

To be classified as hemp under the Industrial Hemp Research Act, a product cannot contain more than 0.3% of a concentration of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC.

Any product containing a delta-9 THC concentration greater than 0.3% or containing any other THC isomers such as delta-8 THC or delta 10 THC is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Pennsylvania's Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act.

Detectives seized a total of approximately 1,700 products with an estimated total value of approximately $85,000.

Testing of samples of those products at a state police laboratory confirmed that they contained higher than 0.3% THC, Adams said.

The district attorney said he elected not to prosecute those found in possession of or selling the products because he believes some truly believed that what they were selling was legal, and also because the labeling of the products is confusing, possibly by design.

He said he will consider prosecutions if the stores resume selling those products.

Education over enforcement

Chief County Detective Michael J. Gombar said it's not the first time authorities have used education instead of prosecution to address distribution of a dangerous substance.

Over a decade ago, mind-altering substances labeled as "bath salts" were being sold at stores before lawmakers banned them as controlled substances.

State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Ruscombmanor Township Democrat, was among those who contacted Adams after fielding complaints about kids having easy access to products containing THC.

Speaking during the press conference, Schwank said she received an email from a mother who is also a constituent. The mother said her son, who was too young to legally buy vaping products of any kind, had bought a product containing delta 8, and told her a lot of kids were using it.

"The packaging had no label and had no ingredients listed other than delta 8," Schwank said. "The lack of detail about these products is common. What we're finding is there is no oversight, product testing of quality control.:

In the process of extracting the THC from the hemp, manufacturers use solvents and other chemicals.

"The consumer has no idea exactly what they're actually vaping or ingesting, and that's certainly a danger right there for anyone who would be using these products," the senator said. "It needs to be addressed especially if individuals continue to find ways to access delta 8."

Schwank said she contacted Adams and Gombar, who were receptive to using their law-enforcement powers to shine a spotlight on the problem locally.

She said the issue is something that should be addressed at the state level to ensure consumers are getting safe products.

"Given what we've heard today," Schwank said. "I think we all should be concerned, and open to finding solutions. The DA's office I think has done the right thing. This is a good first step and I'm appreciative of the fact that we're going to work to educate people rather than try to be punitive here."

'Misleads consumers'

The fact that the products can be bought at gas stations, convenience stores and vape shops gives the illusion that they are harmless, said Jaclyn Sneed, prevention program manager with the Council on Chemical Abuse of Berks County.

"Some of these products may be labeled simply as hemp products, which misleads consumers who associate hemp with nonpsychoactive products, but products sold with delta 8 and delta 10 are psychoactive substances that can cause unpredictable effects including increased heart rate, light-headedness and paranoia.

Introducing substances into developing brains can lead to behavior problems and addiction, so taking products out of stores helps to reduce access to youth.

She added that recently released data from the 2021 Pennsylvania Youth Survey showed 24% of 12th graders are vaping. Many are using hemp oil, some are using products containing THC but many don't know what they're ingesting.

Sneed said COCA is working with schools in the community to put in prevention and education programs to steer students away from vaping and using THC products.