MONROE COUNTY, Tenn. — Shop owners are supposed to be the gatekeepers -- at the very least following the law -- but investigators in the state are worried some are ushering in a drug epidemic and exposing young people to dangerous substances.
Law enforcement is going undercover to catch bad actors and they're taking us along to see how they are trying to prevent Delta-8 THC from ending up in the wrong hands.
Monroe County deputies have been hitting the street on a safety mission, exposing business owners authorities believe are selling vape and Delta-8 products to minors.
Delta-8 THC is a psychoactive substance found in a cannabis plant -- specifically hemp-derived CBD, which is legal across the U.S. The hemp CBD is lab-processed to manufacture vape and edible products with concentrated amounts of Delta-8 THC, which gives someone a high similar to marijuana.
Delta-8 is largely unregulated and the product is banned in more than 16 states over health and regulation concerns -- including in some states where it's legal to use marijuana and more potent Delta-9 THC products recreationally.
In Monroe County, deputies have seen a growing trend of minors abusing Delta-8, and have responded to multiple accidental overdoses during school in the past year related to the substance.
"Delta-8 is getting in the hands of our kids from stores who are not following the law," Monroe County detective Dalton Rinehart said.
It’s a problem we’ve seen in action before. The sheriff’s office said it responded to four Delta-8 overdose calls at Sequoyah High School in 2021.
10News joined detectives on an undercover sting to find out if these age-restricted products are being sold unlawfully to minors.
Three detectives worked with an undercover teen to hit four stores in Madisonville. A high schooler, who has asked to remain nameless, was the buyer. He was equipped with cash from the sheriff’s office and used his authentic government-issued state ID. He was not disguised and was not allowed to provide any false information to clerks.
His vehicle was searched prior to the operation for any Delta-8 products and he carried a recording device into each store. What stores did not know: he was working for the law.
Over a course of two hours, the detectives sent the teen in and out, putting store clerks to the test.
The Madisonville corner store, Tobacco King, did not take the bait and did not sell to the minor.
"That lady in there checked my ID,” the teen said.
10News went inside to talk to the clerk, Jennifer Cogdill, who said he came in trying to buy Delta-8 from her and she noticed his ID said he was born in 2003.
"He was 18 years old and he handed me his ID, and I was like, 'No," Cogdill said.
This store was happy it passed the test, but two of the four places detectives tested actually did sell to the teen. He said it was easy.
The clerk at one of the failing stores not only checked the teen's real government-issued ID, but the teen said she sold him a Girl Scout cookie-flavored Delta-8 vape pen.
"The kid that just came in and bought this was only 18 years old,” Detective Rinehart said to the clerk.
"Oh, but he showed me his ID," the clerk responded.
"It says he's only 18," Detective Rinehart told the clerk.
When detectives wanted answers for why the clerk would sell Delta-8 to someone who isn't 21, the clerk didn’t seem to know the legal birth year of sale for tobacco and vaping products, which is now 21 in the state of Tennessee as of Jan. 2021.
"There's a sign right there,” detectives said pointing to a sign at her register. The sign stated the legal year was 2000, which now would be 2001 for anyone born before February 15.
Detectives issued a citation.
"Since it's just a problem, we decided before this operation we are going to issue a citation," Detective Rinehart said.
If it's the first offense, retailers typically receive a warning letter. A second offense within five years results in a fine of up to $500 in Tennessee, but these fines are ultimately decided by the district attorney, Rinehart said.
"It's hard doing enforcement on juveniles. You want to focus on the adults. You want to focus on the source of the problem,” he said.
Shops Stay Diligent
Delta-8 candies, vapes, and food items are being marketed and sold as if they were typical hemp products containing non-psychoactive cannabinoids. These products can be found seemingly everywhere: gas stations, head shops, or bodegas.
There are businesses in East Tennessee working to do their part, though. One Knox County convenience store owner is going the extra mile to make sure his clerks are doing the right thing as more teens try to buy from his shop, he said. Nick Patel owns the Sunoco Station on Ebenezer Road.
"It's just ridiculous," he said referring to how difficult it is to keep these products away from teens.
He, like many other store owners, is facing another curveball: the use of fake IDs.
"We scan IDs no matter what. We don't type it in manually, we don't second guess," Patel said.
He loses sleep over the limited action he can take when handed a fake ID, he said.
"How many parents actually know that their kids have fake IDs?" Patel asked.
He said high schoolers are trying frequently to buy from his shop. That’s why he had to purchase an ID scanning machine that cost more than $1,000. He also has his store on full-time surveillance.
"16 cameras inside, 16 cameras outside,” Patel said.
Patel has been in the gas station business for years, but he said the evolution of fake IDs has come a long way. Some, he suspects, are even scannable.
"I'll give it to Knox County Sheriffs. I'll take a picture of it and send it to Bearden High School or any other high school in the area," Patel said.
It makes it hard to do his job keeping these age-restricted products out of the hands of teens, but he's diligent. Patel is not playing games.
"Nobody wants to pay out of pocket, and nobody wants to be fingerprinted," Patel said.
When it comes to Delta-8, he said it adds another layer of chaos.
"It's basically a tobacco product," he said. "The laws need to change on that or completely get rid of it."
From a moral standpoint, he said, the risk that comes with these types of products outweighs the reward.
"It's not even worth it," he said.
10News reached out to the two stores that failed. One didn't wish to comment on the citation and hung up the phone. The other claimed they are taking underage sales seriously and haven't failed to check an ID since being issued that citation.
Both are expected to appear in court on Feb. 28.
We followed up with Knox County Schools regarding Patel's claims about Bearden High School. School officials did not specifically name this high school but said there were a total of 431 related offensives across the district last year.
The Tennessee Poison Center reported 115 accidental Delta-8 overdoses across the state in 2021, with nearly 30% of those being young children under 5. The Monroe County Sheriff's Office reported 13 Delta-8 related overdose calls in the county since the start of last year.
"On the surface, it's hard to often tell what you're dealing with," Detective Rinehart said.
Following four overdose calls to Sequoyah High School alone, Monroe County detectives are concerned about the instant intoxication aspect of the product.
"What we're calling 'overdoses' is probably kids that haven't done this type of stuff before... that doesn't realize the potency of something like this," Detective Rinehart said.
And according to District 10 Attorney Gen. Steve Crump, the potency isn't regulated and there's evidence the THC is mixed with synthetic chemicals, leading to a high sensation.
This makes Detective Rinehart's job tricky, to say the least.
"If you get a call of somebody overdosing, you're not certain of what it is... Whether you should give them Narcan or not. There's a lot of ifs and questions with this stuff," he said.
Crump said it's also tricky to follow through on Delta-8 violations when they make their way into the courtroom.
"It's a significant problem. First, it's basically an unregulated substance," Crump said.
However, he's confident change is soon to come.
"I think most judges now are more sensitive to the dangers of this," he said.
Right now, at least 18 states have either regulated, restricted, or banned Delta-8 THC. Tennessee isn't one of them yet.
"There's growing evidence that a lot of the more serious drugs that we find in the school usually began through a Delta-8 transaction," Crump said.
Putting strain, he said, on local law enforcement.
"It still leaves the law enforcement officer on the street, the DA, one of my assistant DAs in the courtroom, where we're not in a place where we can enforce this," he said.
That has a lot to do with Delta-8 falling into the same category as tobacco when it comes to sales and violations.
"People are looking at a product they can get high on without them having to worry about a police officer being there to get them in trouble," Crump said.
Tennessee State Rep. Chris Hurt doesn't believe that's what the 2018 Farm Bill was intended to do. In this bill, Congress' intent in the House and Senate appears to achieve in providing another crop for America’s farmers to add into their rotation as long as the crop and the products derived from hemp harvests are not intoxicating.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration considers Delta-8 a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance because it is known to cause psychoactive impairment to the consumer.
“Delta-8 is a grey area when it comes to the law,” Detective Rinehart said.
There's no way of guaranteeing what you see is what you get. When it comes to a Delta-8 product, well, it's not your typical box of chocolates.
"People are getting high off it," Detective Rinehart said.
Rep. Hurt told 10News now that this has been brought to his attention, he has a plan to start regulation. It's going to start with proposing a tax increase.
"We've got a 6.6% wholesale tax which falls into that category of tobacco which will give us some money to place some quality testing standards, some infrastructure around this industry that is highly needed," he said.
"I don't want this to get buried in the story," he said, "I do see the upside of it."
He said he doesn't want Delta-8 to get banned in the state. He said he sees there are some positive uses when it uses, like pain control, but that's for distributors who are following the rules and for people using it responsibly.
Rep. Hurt said a few bad products and rule-breakers give Delta 8 a bad reputation but he acknowledged that so many are following the rules. While many are also using the product responsibly. There are just a few cracks in the laws that need sealing.
In the meantime, local authorities like MCSO are having to take matters into their own hands.
"Our captain over SROs took a lot of training measures to stop this from happening again and lately they're having less of an issue with it at the schools," Detective Rinehart said.