In a warehouse outside Chicago, a crop of hemp grows to produce a controversial substance that some people call "weed light."
The plants fall under the same Cannabis sativa species that produce marijuana. But like all legal hemp, they have been bred to contain less than 0.3% delta-9-THC, the main ingredient that gets users stoned.
Instead, the hemp is used to produce the popular supplement CBD and a derivative called delta-8-THC -- said to give users a milder high without brain fog or anxiety.
In the past year, delta-8-THC products have become commonly sold in gas stations, smoke shops and on the internet. The products are unregulated, and tests have shown that some contain contaminants like pesticides or metals, and little delta-8 or too much delta-9.
But Charles Wu, CEO of indoor cultivator Nexem and co-founder of hemp grower Prescribd, said his company in Bridgeview, Ill., tests and provides QR codes for analysis of all their products to ensure that customers know what they're getting. Unlike some growers, he is in favor of regulations, as long as they don't kill his business.
"It's a new industry, so there need to be some regulatory standards," he said.
While federal law does not address delta-8-THC by name, it does ban "analogue" designer drugs that mimic drugs on the federal controlled substances list, such as marijuana. More specifically, at least 15 states reportedly have banned or restricted it.
In Illinois, a proposed law would require lab testing and labeling for any product containing CBD, delta-8-THC or other cannabinoids, which are components of cannabis that affect the human body.
The CBD Safety Act would have the state Department of Agriculture set the rules for testing, and would let police and regulators inspect any business that handles cannabinoids. Violators would be subject to criminal fines.
The bill failed to pass in the spring session. Its sponsors, state Rep. Bob Morgan, a Democrat from Highwood, and state Sen. Cristina Castro, a Democrat from Elgin, plan to hold meetings with industry stakeholders this summer to discuss whether any changes need to be made before the fall legislative session.
State-licensed cannabis companies generally favor restricting cannabinoids like delta-8. They say the products are cutting into their business without the same restrictions, taxes and testing requirements they must follow.
"Delta-8 is a topic of concern," said Pam Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois. "It's everywhere. It needs to be subject to the same standards as the cannabis industry. They have to test and label."
The hemp industry has been somewhat divided on the issue.
The U.S. Hemp Roundtable, an industry advocacy organization, issued a statement calling for "intoxicating" products featuring THC to be regulated separately from CBD and non-intoxicating hemp products. By contrast, another business group, the Hemp Industries Association, declared that delta-8-THC should be considered legal under the farm bill of 2018 that legalized hemp.
Despite that law, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has proposed that any "synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols," such as delta-8-THC, would be illegal. The Hemp Industries Association has sued the DEA to prevent such an interpretation of the law.
While the debate plays out, the U.S. Cannabis Council, which represents marijuana companies and advocates, argues that state attorneys general should stop the sale of delta-8.
The council argues that delta-8 isn't dangerous, but contaminants in unregulated products that include delta-8 may be, representing "a public health risk of potentially wider impact than the vape crisis" that peaked in 2019. That crisis resulted in 2,800 hospitalizations and 68 deaths, primarily due to people inhaling illegal THC vaping pens.
Part of the problem, industry members say, is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration continues to drag its feet in regulating CBD. Growers say the FDA not allowing CBD as a food supplement has constricted the market for it, and encouraged development of other derivatives like delta-8-THC.
Research has shown therapeutic possibilities for cannabinoids. CBD has been tested and approved by the FDA for treating rare forms of epilepsy, with some evidence suggesting it could help with chronic pain or opioid addiction.
The National Cancer Institute has stated that delta-8-THC also has "potential" pain-relieving and appetite-stimulating properties. Many medical observers caution that more research is needed.
Undeterred by the ambiguous guidance, some customers are looking for a product more effective than CBD but not as strong as delta-9-THC.
Ryan Bellone, commercial director of KCA Labs in Nicholasville, Ky., said proper testing would help to determine the effects of the dozens of compounds in cannabis.
"I'd like to see more testing so we can answer all the safety questions," he said. "Then people would know what they're consuming."
If cannabinoids are simply outlawed again and stay in the black market, he said, "We'll be in the dark for another 50 years on cannabinoids and the possible health benefits."
Wu's company applied for a cannabis dispensary and craft grower licenses in Illinois last year. But like every other applicant, he waited more than a year beyond the deadline for the state to award those licenses.
Investors burned through money to maintain the business while awaiting word on whether they qualify for a license. Recently, investors pulled the plug, and the company had to lay off about 15 people.
In the meantime, to get their business started and make money, Wu's team started growing hemp, and offering tours and product tastings at its growing facility in Bridgeview.
Unlike at marijuana cultivation warehouses, where customers are not legally allowed access, visitors at Prescribd are allowed to handle hemp plants. On one harvest recent day, customers hacked down the bushy plants and trimmed them to produce the flower that contains the desired cannabinoids.
Due to high demand for the latest cannabis-derived product, Wu said, "Delta-8 is the only thing keeping us afloat."