The most powerful man in Congress introduced to the Senate on Thursday the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, a bill the hemp industry is calling its “dream wish list” legislation.
The bill would cement—and expand upon—the gains seen from the 2014 Farm Bill, which offered a limited opportunity to grow and market hemp products, in particular hemp oil-derived CBD, which is sweeping the nation.
“As the tobacco industry has changed, some farmers in states like Kentucky have been searching for a new crop that can support their families and grow our agricultural economy, and many believe they have found it in industrial hemp,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) in an address to the Senate along with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden from Oregon televised on C-SPAN.
Wyden said his opinion on hemp was forged on a trip to Costco where he saw hemp hearts for sale, but the hemp for the finished product was not able to be grown in America.
“If you can buy it in a major supermarket in America, our farmers ought to be able to grow it in America,” said Wyden. “This misguided policy of treating hemp like it’s some kind of perilous threat to the American people is a mistake, and it means that hemp products that are lining up on store shelves across America simply will not be American made.”
That reasoning could be just the thing to bring tangible benefits to the newly ascendant “America First” idea.
“The United States is the largest importing nation of industrial hemp products in the world and the only importing nation not to have a national policy,” said Geoff Whaling, chairman of the National Hemp Association. “That translates into millions of dollars of products coming into the United States, and we think those jobs and opportunities should be here for our farmers and manufacturers. The Hemp Farming Act changes all of that.”
What the bill does
The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 bill proposes a number of significant points:
- Legalize hemp, explicitly distinguishing it from marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. In addition to defining hemp as cannabis that contains no more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight, the bill asserts a "whole plant" definition of hemp, including plant extracts.
- Allow states to become the primary regulators of hemp if they can develop a plan to properly monitor its production. A 2014 Farm Bill provision led 36 states to adopt legislation to begin researching hemp. Under the Hemp Farming Act, the USDA would work with states to develop regulations.
- If states are unable or choose not to create their own regulatory plan, the USDA would provide the necessary oversight. This is significant because some conservative politicians have been talking about placing hemp under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, which would look at hemp as more of an illicit drug, and not the USDA, which regulates every other commercial crop in America.
- Authorize and encourage researchers to apply to grants from the USDA to deepen the research dossier around all things cannabis.
- Allow farmers to apply to crop insurance and put it on a level playing field with other crops.
- Clarify that nothing in the act authorizes interference with the interstate transportation or commerce of hemp or hemp products—an important statement to protect hemp farmers and businesses from misguided regulatory overreach.
- Remove restrictions on banking, water rights and other regulatory barriers the hemp industry currently faces.
“It’s a historic day in America for the hemp industry,” said Whaling. “Sens. McConnell, Wyden, Paul and Merkley have introduced a bipartisan Senate bill that not only raises awareness about the potential of this crop, but it puts our industry in a position to meet its full potential.”
In addition to this new Senate bill, a House companion is expected to be introduced by Rep. James Comer (R-Ky).
With support from the Senate leadership, the hemp industry is optimistic that this landmark legislation stands a real path to passage.
“There will be lots of work to do to update all 535 Congressional offices on these developments,” said Ben Droz, a legislative liaison in Washington, D.C., for Vote Hemp. “I look forward to building on all of our work to continue to support the hemp and CBD industries.”
The bill would also provide clarity to the muddy state of affairs around the CBD market. A leading cannabis law firm recently set out to update the CBD business interests on just what the exact state of affairs is today.
Commenting on CBD and hemp extracts, Vote Hemp’s Eric Steenstra said, “DEA is claiming those are illegal. I think this bill takes a big step in the direction of saying, ‘No, those are actually clearly not intended to be illegal by Congress.’”
“I feel like if the farm bill moves this year, I think there’s an extremely good chance that this language will be included in it," he added.
Just last month, ground zero in the CBD wars—Indiana, of all places—passed legislation that explicitly legalized CBD for sale at retail, ending a tumultuous year marked by product seizures, drug-war letters from the state attorney general and walk-backs by the governor.
Commenting on Sen. McConnell’s ability to get things done as the Senate majority leader and a member of the Agricultural Committee, Steenstra said, “I feel pretty good about our chances.”
The work ahead
The hemp industry has blossomed since the 2014 Farm Bill passed. (The Congressional Research Service last year put out a report detailing hemp’s history and potential as an agricultural commodity crop.)
The industry is hoping this legislation will make permanent the legal and regulatory environment that has enabled hemp (and CBD) to flourish. That’s because farm bills only hold for five years. If the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 does not pass, it is expected that many of its provisos will be rolled into the next farm bill, which would allow for greater market opportunities, if only for an additional five-year span.
“By endorsing hemp legalization so passionately and so publicly, Sen. McConnell encourages some Congressmen to take a new look at the issue,” said Jonathan Miller, general counsel at the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, an organization that lobbies the federal government on hemp issues. “He gives other Congressmen cover to do what they already thought was the right thing.”
Kentucky is the No. 2 top-growing hemp state in the country, behind Colorado. It’s a happy coincidence that the state is represented by McConnell, a politician known for his hardball savvy in getting what he wants.
Miller noted that McConnell is an important ally because he’s a traditional conservative with close ties to law enforcement.
“In order for a hemp bill to pass,” said Miller, “we must win the support of many anti-marijuana legislators who understand the difference between the two plants and understand the extraordinary economic opportunity hemp poses to American farmers.”
From hemp extract products (i.e., CBD) to food, fiber, cosmetics, textiles, paper, animal feed, construction materials and more, industrial hemp sales totaled $688 million in 2016, led by hemp food, body care and CBD. The marijuana industry, at last count, was north of $5 billion nationwide—and that figure was before California’s adult-use market came online.
“Years of lobbying efforts and education from all sides have culminated in this historic day,” noted Sarah Syed, director of marketing for CV Sciences, a leading CBD hemp-oil supplement maker of the Plus CBD Oil brand.
“The timing of this announcement couldn’t be better for Colorado hemp,” said Hunter Buffington, executive director of the Colorado Hemp Industries Association. “National recognition of hemp as an agricultural commodity will allow Colorado farmers to continue to expand production and support the development of new markets and technologies.”
In other cannabis news
The bill was the cap of the significant month in the cannabis business. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, saying, “My thinking on cannabis has evolved,” announced that he has joined the board of advisors of Acreage Holdings, a cannabis company that operates in 11 states. Boehner’s legislative experience in Congress can only help the cause of not just hemp but get-high, adult-use marijuana legalization.
Leading craft beer brewer New Belgium, makers of Fat Tire beer, in March announced the launch of The Hemperor, a 7 percent alcohol content beer featuring both hops and hemp.
Also in March, a former Coors beer brewer announced the launch of three marijuana-infused drinks that contain THC but no alcohol. That combination is currently illegal. The beer-tasting beverages will be available in the fall only in Colorado.
And just this week a Canadian coffee chain, Second Cup, said it will convert some of its coffee shops into pot shops. Canada is reportedly poised to legalize marijuana for adult use in July.
Last week also featured the fifth annual NoCo Hemp Expo in Colorado, the world’s largest hemp exposition. The show is so big that it is moving to Denver for 2019.
“It’s a win for states, a win for the country," said NoCo Hemp Expo co-founder and co-producer Morris Beegle of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018. “A win for the plant and a win for planet Earth.”