Leigh Ann LaDuke was picking up her kids from school on the afternoon of Friday, March 4, when she heard the police had paid her business a visit while she was out. LaDuke is the sales manager of The Shoppe, a vape-supply and CBD store in Fort Oglethorpe, GA. In addition to CBD oil and tinctures, vaporizer batteries and e-juices, The Shoppe also stocked products containing Delta-8 THC.
An increasingly common and somewhat controversial cannabinoid, Delta-8 THC is derived from source material originating in the federally legal hemp plant. However, since Delta-8 produces a high similar to federally illegal cannabis’ Delta-9 THC—and since you can buy it online, at smoke shops, gas stations or anywhere else a merchant stocks it on shelves—Delta-8 products are popular in states where cannabis is still illegal, such as Georgia.
This also means Delta-8 is very unpopular with law enforcement. And in at least three jurisdictions in Georgia, local sheriff’s offices and district attorneys appear to have launched an all-out assault on Delta-8 THC—despite state and federal laws allowing the drug, advocates and attorneys told Cannabis Now.
It all adds up to what increasingly looks like a desperate, last-ditch War on Drugs battle in the final years before nationwide legalization, waged by what even a state judge worries are “rogue” law enforcement officials.
The Letter and the Law
Upon her return to work, LaDuke discovered a letter left from a detective from the local Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office. The communication, signed by Catoosa County Sheriff Gary R. Sisk, informed her that sheriff’s representatives had “purchased items from your store and had them tested,” and that they contained a “significate [sic] level of Delta 9.”
“It’s your responsibility to know what you are selling and what it contains especially when I’m telling you it’s a violation of Georgia law,” Sisk’s letter continued, adding that The Shoppe had until April 30 to remove “these illegal items” and if they didn’t, “We already have the evidence needed to move forward with prosecutions and seizures.”
Puzzled and upset, LaDuke and Joe King, owner of The Shoppe, went to the sheriff’s office to sort things out. They had certificates of authentication showing their products were well within state limits, which say anything derived from hemp, cannabis with 0.3% Delta-9 THC or less, is legal to sell.
They were told that the county has an ongoing problem with “people actively overdosing on cannabis.” The sheriff’s office had purchased products from The Shoppe and sent them off for their own testing, and “they tested higher than the Georgia law allowed,” said LaDuke, who didn’t believe a word of what she heard.
“We asked for proof and what was purchased that day, and we were refused,” she said. “We also offered COAs for our products and were told that ours do not matter because they tested our products.”
The Catoosa Sheriff’s Office didn’t return a call for comment to Cannabis Now. But according to Ryan Ralston, the executive director of Peachtree NORML, the Georgia branch of the organization, The Shoppe is one of several stores in at least three Georgia jurisdictions to be subjected to a Delta-8 crackdown: Gwinnett County, east of Atlanta; and Madison County, in northeast Georgia, in addition to Catoosa County, in the northwest of the state on the border with Tennessee.
In these places, local law enforcement seem to be waging a sort of war of choice, a last stand of the War on Drugs.
Rogue DAs and a Rearguard Action
“The vast majority, if not 99 percent, of the DAs and sheriffs and chiefs of police have recognized that Delta-8 is, in fact, lawful,” Ralston said. What’s happening, he says, is that “a couple of rogue DAs or sheriffs have taken it upon themselves to declare Delta-8 unlawful and then [move to] take enforcement action.”
Ralston has a theory on why this is ramping up now.
“You have the reinvention of Reefer Madness here in Georgia,” he said.
Ralston noted that 2022 is an election year, and conservative sheriffs up for re-election (such as Sisk) may be trolling for a wedge issue. In several instances, law enforcement officials have claimed—so far, without showing any proof—that children have been accessing Delta-8 products.
Others speculated that Sisk may also have encouragement from a local multi-jurisidictional drug task force. But what he doesn’t have is support from the state of Georgia itself.
After Patsy Austin-Gatson, the district attorney in Gwinnett County, declared in January that selling Delta-8 was a felony offense and tried to enforce a county-wide ban—staging at least two raids, filing felony charges against at least one individual and seizing millions of dollars’ worth of product, according to estimates—two local vape shops sued to stop her.
In response, a state judge imposed a monthlong restraining order, staying Austin-Gatson’s hand.
“I have concerns that this may or may not be a rogue DA,” said Judge Craig Schwall, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Austin-Gatson’s office didn’t return a telephone message to Cannabis Now seeking comment.
Tom Church, one of the attorneys handling the cases on behalf of the offended vape shops, confirmed on April 22 that the monthlong temporary restraining orders imposed on Austin-Gatson, have been appealed by the state attorney general’s office.
That means the legality of Delta-8 in Georgia may ultimately hinge on a judge’s order. In the meantime, Austin-Gatson has declared Delta-8 products OK if they’re not food products—meaning anyone selling Delta-8 gummies, possibly the drug’s most popular form, is still at risk, Church said.
“A lot of people are paying attention to this lawsuit, which is good—we need clarity in the law,” he said. “Of course, we think it’s unambiguous that Delta 8, Delta-10 and other cannabinoids as long as it’s not Delta-9 can be put in all types of products.”
The War on Drugs Continues in Georgia
In the meantime, The Shoppe is teetering on the brink of viability. Though the letter was the only warning LaDuke received, that was enough.
Rightly fearful of a raid, LaDuke and King pulled all their Delta-8 products, severely reducing their sales, but even that hasn’t ended their problems with the law. The Shoppe’s remaining customers “are getting pulled over” on their way in or out of the store, she said, further discouraging business.
According to Peachtree NORML’s Ralston, the Delta-8 campaign could be a politically motivated distraction. All the areas where the crackdowns have occurred have something in common: violent crime rates “3% to 5% higher” than statewide rates, he said, plus the ever-worsening opioid overdose crisis.
Looking decisive or tough on something easy—such as federally legal products sitting on a shelf in a store—might be a good way to direct attention elsewhere. The same week LaDuke received her letter, a neighboring county recorded five fentanyl overdoses, she said.
“Yet, we’re the issue,” she said. “Busting several prominent businesses wouldn’t only make them look good, but fund them.”
“I feel like we’re all in a movie or a dream.”