A new bill before Congress could remove the last barriers to hemp growing in the United States, but only if legislators remove harmful provisions that prevent it from being a complete solution to hemp's legal troubles.
In 2014, new legislation once again allowed the states to grow hemp for research purposes after decades of prohibition. Unfortunately, that law still leaves room for government agencies to threaten hemp growers and vendors, and falls far short of total legalization.
Industry advocates have spent years lobbying Congress for a bill which would completely legalize industrial hemp and remove it from Drug Enforcement Agency oversight and interference. Though deeply flawed in its current form, there's hope that the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, currently making its way through Congress, could be an important step in that direction.
"I'm confident as this goes through different committees, through the House and the Senate, that it can get shaken out the right way," said John Ryan, founder of Ananda Hemp, which grows hundreds of acres of hemp for CBD and other uses in Kentucky.
To understand the potential of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, we talked to Ryan and other hemp industry professionals who hope this bill marks a major step toward total legalization of hemp. In this article we'll explain why legislative change is so important to hemp's future.
A Brief Overview of the State of Hemp in the United States
Popular Mechanics predicted in 1938 that hemp would soon become a "billion dollar crop," but that promise was snuffed out by drug prohibition, which made hemp growing illegal except for a brief period during World War II.
Hemp growing restarted in the US in the wake of the 2014 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp growing for research purposes. Research was broadly defined to include market research — in other words, sales of hemp-based products as well as research into simply growing and processing the plant.
Under this 2014 law, each state was allowed to determine the size and form of these hemp research programs. Further underlining the legality of the hemp grown by these research initiatives, the 2015 and 2016 Appropriations Acts (Congressional spending bills) specifically forbade the Federal government from spending any resources on going after these hemp growers under the laws that normally apply to hemp (and all forms of cannabis) under the War On Drugs.
Currently, according to the pro-hemp lobbyists at Vote Hemp, 33 states have hemp growing programs under the protections provided by the 2014 Farm Bill. However, the current situation limits hemp's potential as a cash crop.
"There's still some real barriers to investment, barriers to a number of other things with the way the hemp market is right now," explained Eric Steenstra, President of Vote Hemp.
The DEA continues to interfere with hemp and especially with CBD oil extracts, insisting that they are illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. Hemp experts disagree with the DEA and have launched a lawsuit. Although CBD consumers have been safe from legal problems so far, CBD vendors have faced legal threats and even occasional police raids. In one recent instance, Indiana state police raided a grocery store selling CBD oil, only to be forced to backtrack and admit that they didn't have the right to seize the store's extracts.
Additionally, the right to grow hemp hasn't been equally distributed to everyone under current laws. Native Americans have faced DEA raids and legal threats, with the government arguing that the 2014 Farm Bill only applies to states, not tribal nations.
Can the 2017 Industrial Hemp Act "Get the DEA off the Farm?" Not in Its Current Form
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017 would separate industrial hemp from psychoactive cannabis, officially removing the agricultural crop from classification as an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act. State agriculture departments would largely be free to regulate hemp just like they do potatoes, wheat, or any other crop. Based on conversations between Native Americans and lawmakers, tribal nations are now also explicitly included in hemp legalization.
With the Industrial Hemp Act, State agriculture departments would largely be free to regulate hemp just like they do potatoes, wheat, or any other crop.
As we previously reported on Ministry of Hemp, while hemp has bipartisan support with politicians from across the United States, support for hemp is especially strong in tobacco country. So it's no surprise that the 2017 hemp bill was introduced by Kentucky Republican Rep. James Comer, with support from Kentucky Reps. Thomas Massey and Andy Barr, also members of the GOP. In all, the bill has 16 cosponsors, including 9 Democrats and 7 Republicans.
Ryan succinctly described the bill's purpose: "to get the DEA off the farm." He told us he's especially confident in the guidance of the Kentucky-based lawmakers, including the Representatives sponsoring the bill and their counterparts in the Senate, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, both of whom are also strong supporters of industrial hemp.
"These guys have been proven great stewards of this industry," he told Ministry of Hemp. "All the policies and regulations that are in place now that are protecting farmers across, it was these guys that really led the way."
They may have their work cut out for them. In return for allowing the bill to pass out of the House Judiciary Committee (a crucial step the bill must pass through before being, eventually, voted on by the entire House), Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the committee chair, required the addition of several provisions that seem to work in direct opposition to the bill's purpose.
The most disturbing provision would allow the DEA to make unannounced "administrative inspections" anytime, anywhere hemp is growing.
The most disturbing provision would allow the DEA to make unannounced "administrative inspections" anytime, anywhere hemp is growing. Steenstra explained that these inspections are usually reserved for pharmaceutical manufacturers and doctors or hospitals that deal in controlled substances like opiate drugs.
"That is a completely inappropriate provision that doesn't apply to an agricultural crop," he added.
Another amendment specifies that the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, if signed into law, would still be superseded by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. CBD vendors worry that this seemingly innocuous provision is actually an attempt to influence a legal conflict between the CBD oil industry and the Food and Drug Administration in favor of the government agency.
Under current laws, hemp-based products (including CBD extracts) can't be sold if they contain more than .3 percent THC, the active ingredient in psychoactive cannabis which makes people feel "high." A final troubling provision could cause CBD oil makers to face legal consequences if THC levels accidentally rose above .3 percent during extraction, even if they disposed of the results without attempting to sell them.
"The law is you can't sell a product with more than 3 tenths of a percent THC and we're fine with that," Steenstra said. "If it goes a little bit higher during processing that shouldn't be be an illegal activity."
In any case, with many stages to go before the Industrial Hemp Farming Act potentially becomes law, Ryan hopes these clauses will be corrected.
"I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know DC politics, but I'm feeling pretty confident that it'll get done the right way or not get done at all," Ryan said.
When Hemp Tests "Hot": 2017 Industrial Hemp Farming Act Would Expand Hemp Research
Currently, industrial hemp must have less than .3 percent THC to be legal. This cut-off is strictly enforced by the US government, even compared to some other countries that use similar guidelines. For example, Steenstra told us that in Canada if a hemp crop has THC levels over .3 percent, a problem that growers refer to as "testing hot," the government makes a note of it and may ask farmers to plant different varieties of hemp if the problem keeps occurring. By contrast, in the US, if a crop tests hot then the entire crop has to be burned. In April, agriculture officials in Kentucky burned $20,000 of hot hemp even though it tested at just .4 percent THC.
"This kind of thing is a little ridiculous," Steenstra said.
While it's useful to differentiate between industrial hemp and psychoactive cannabis (what people ingest to "get high"), the .3 percent cut-off is somewhat arbitrary, as even industry experts like Steenstra admit. Even 1 percent THC wouldn't easily get a person high; strains of cannabis ingested for their psychoactive potential typically contain far higher levels, with the average strain of legal cannabis in Colorado testing at around 18 percent or more.
In Canada if a hemp crop has THC levels over .3 percent, a problem that growers refer to as "testing hot," the government makes a note of it and may ask farmers to plant different varieties of hemp if the problem keeps occurring. By contrast, in the US, if a crop tests hot then the entire crop has to be burned.
Under a provision of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017, hemp with THC levels above .3 percent, but no higher than .6 percent, could be used for research purposes though it would still be illegal to sell any products made from these crops.
"If we could get it up to 6 tenths of a percent it would provide some flexibility," Steenstra continued.
When we asked John Ryan about this clause, he stressed that while it could be useful he doesn't want to see the expansion of hemp research interfere with the overall legalization of industrial hemp. "If it gets put aside I don't think it's the end of the world," he told us.
"This Is an Unstoppable Movement: How Can You Help Legalize Hemp"
Not every hemp grower we spoke with agreed about the Industrial Hemp Farming Act. Veronica Carpio, a grower and advocate who operates Grow Hemp Colorado, opposes the bill not just because of problems like surprise DEA inspections of farms, but also because it excludes psychoactive cannabis. She pointed out that one historical factor in hemp prohibition was the threat it posed to the paper and textile industries. She explained her viewpoint:
"Hemp started prohibition in the first place and I don't know anybody in prison for hemp charges or hemp possession or distribution. I know a lot of people in prison and lives ruined over marijuana. So for me, especially as a Colorado cannabis activist or business owner, I can't support any bill that separates the two."
But regardless of some disagreements over the details, Carpio agreed with Ryan and Steenstra that the Industrial Hemp Farming Act is a sign of meaningful progress toward legalization. "This is a good start but I don't think that this bill is the solution," she said.
"Whether this bill gets passed or not this is a growing movement, this is an unstoppable movement," Ryan said. "We will get this stuff done whether it's this Comer-sponsored bill or not. This plant will be legalized."
Ryan told us that while hemp has the full support of Kentucky legislators, progress depends on the support of every lawmaker. That's where hemp enthusiasts like Ministry of Hemp's readers can help. Ryan suggested that you can reach out to your Senators and Representatives and urge them to support total legalization of hemp.
"Where the rubber meets the road is people in other states need to get on the phone with their representatives and try to drum up some support, or voice their concerns and their opinions and just be part of the movement overall."