On the eve of the nation's best-known marijuana holiday, South Florida breweries have been thrown into chaos by cease-and-desist letters sent to breweries using terpene, an ingredient that can be related to cannabis and hemp.
Two events at breweries scheduled for tomorrow's 4/20 holiday were canceled, and two other South Florida beer makers recently stopped selling suds containing terpenes. The turmoil began April 9, when the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) ordered Devour Brewing Co. in Boynton Beach and Invasive Species in Fort Lauderdale to stop selling beer infused with terpenes.
Devour halted production of the beer. So did Holy Mackerel in Pompano Beach.
This Thursday, Miami's J. Wakefield Brewing, which had planned an event for Friday, canceled it because of concerns about the federal cease-and-desist letters. “It is a brand-new ingredient,” Wakefield brand director Alex Gutierrez says. “We have submitted our beer to a laboratory... for approval.”
Also Thursday, LauderAle in Fort Lauderdale, which planned a contest among a series of terpene beers, called it off. "We decided not to go ahead with the 4/20 terpene event," LauderAle owner Kyle Jones says. "If we can't confirm before tomorrow that these beers will be OK'ed with the TTB, we don't want to serve them."
Yet another brewery, Twisted Trunk in Palm Beach Gardens, is unsure whether to cancel an event to include terpene beer scheduled for tomorrow. "This isn't about making a weed-flavored beer. It's about creating something new and a whole new category of beer," founder Fran Andrewlevich says. "We're not trying to break the law; we're trying to comply... Right now, we're still deciding whether or not we'll go forward with our 4/20 event."
Invasive Species, which received one of the original cease-and-desist orders, wants people to understand their beers are free of THC and CBD. "This is not a big deal," cofounder and brewer Phi Gillis says. "The TTB requests the formula of any beers being produced with nontraditional ingredients as a standard procedure. We'd like to set the record straight and say that the terpenes we use in the beer contain no THC, CBD, or any of the psychoactive properties of marijuana. The government is not cracking down on breweries making pot beer. They are only asking us to show how we make a beer that tastes that way."
The confusion and conflict relate to disparities between the laws set forth by two federal agencies — the TTB and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Terpenes, the naturally derived essential oils found in plants, including hemp and cannabis, have been used in beers across the nation for quite some time, but the trend in South Florida began several months ago when Devour was approached by Alexis Shaw, owner and founder of the Boynton Beach-based Terpene Station, to brew an experimental beer using his terpenes. Over the past few months, his terpenes — manufactured by a state-recognized facility in Colorado and marketed as free from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) —- were sold across the region.
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According to Shaw, there's nothing illegal about the use of his product, which he says is a food-grade terpene made from the stalk of various strains of the hemp plant. "What these brewers are doing is so experimental I don't think any of them knew what the proper process was to move forward using it," Shaw says, who led brewers to believe his product was fully compliant with both state and federal law. "This product isn't meant to get people high. This isn't a way to sneak marijuana into beer."
However, because some terpenes are produced from hemp or cannabis, the TTB still requires testing to ensure there is no THC or CBD. As of 2000, the TTB approved hemp products as a substance for use in malt beverage production. This week, Invasive Species submitted formulas to the TTB for approval; previously, none of the local breweries had completed the testing required by the agency because they were unaware it was necessary, although several underwent independent testing with a local lab to ensure the finished product was free of THC.
Moving forward, breweries could continue to produce terpene-infused beers once the TTB approves specific formulas from each brewery. However, they would still risk oversight by the DEA, which says beer made with hemp is prohibited by federal law, according to DEA spokesperson Melvin Patterson. No product derived from hemp or cannabis — both classified as Schedule I controlled substances — is legal in a consumable product as stated in the Controlled Substances Act.
Patterson says his office has received a number of calls about the issue in the past year. "Some people call and they aren't comfortable with the possible repercussions, so they stop using these products,” he says. “Others don't worry that it's something that will be enforced anytime soon and choose to take the risk."