Congress is poised to finally lift its longstanding ban on industrial hemp
By Paul Armentano
House and Senate leaders announced that they have come to an agreement on a reconciled version of The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (farm bill) — must-pass legislation that is reauthorized by Congress every five years. However, for the first time ever, provisions have been included in the act to lift the federal government’s longstanding ban on the commercial production of industrial hemp.
Unlike traditional cannabis, which is primarily grown for the purpose of harvesting its flowers, industrial hemp is a fibrous crop grown mainly for its stalk and seeds — which can be utilized in the manufacturing of textiles, paper, animal feed, food-stuffs and numerous other products. Because only trace levels of THC, the primary psychotropic compound in marijuana, is present in hemp, most countries — including Canada and Japan — appropriately define it as an agricultural crop and not as a controlled substance. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, "The United States is the only developed nation in which industrial hemp is not an established crop."
But this reality is about to change. The hemp-specific provisions included in the engrossed version of the farm bill — which were largely shepherded by Senate Majority Speaker Mitch McConnell(R-Ky.) — amend the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970 so that industrial hemp plants containing no more than 0.3 percent THC are no longer classified as a schedule I prohibited substance. Certain cannabinoid compounds extracted from the hemp plant would also be exempt from the CSA. In short, the language would make states, rather than the federal government, the primary regulators and decision-makers with regard to commercial hemp production and sales.
McConnell has long been an advocate for lifting America’s hemp ban and has espoused the plant’s economic potential. Speaking with reporters earlier this month, he said: “I don’t want to overstate this — I don’t know if it’s going to be the next tobacco or not — but I do think it has a lot of potential."
Like with other areas of marijuana policy, many states have already moved ahead in this space ahead of federal action. To date, over 40 states have enacted legislation redefining hemp as an agricultural commodity and permitting licensed hemp cultivation in some manner. Going forward, those who engage in these endeavors will no longer have to look over their shoulders in fear of federal interference or prosecution.
Congressional approval of the Act also has significant implications with regard to the legal status of commercially available, so-called hemp-derived CBD oils and extracts — which are commonly marketed as over-the-counter health supplements. For years these products, despite their rapidly growing popularity, have largely existed in a legal grey area. As a result, there are few if any regulatory standards in the industry and concerns have grown with regard to quality of many of these products — particularly those sold online. Random samplings of these products by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and others have found that the chemical composition of commercially available CBD oils seldom contain the levels of CBD advertised. Even more disconcerting, some products have been identified to contain psychoactive adulterants, including THC, synthetic cannabinoids and even dextromethorphan — a common cough suppressant. However, lifting the federal hemp ban will for the first time allow lawmakers to develop and impose best manufacturing practices and standards for this nascent industry — policies that will ultimately lead to a safer and better-quality product for consumers.
Finally, the symbolic significance of this forthcoming law change should not be under emphasized. Passage of the 2018 farm bill will mark the first change in the federal classification of the cannabis plant since it was initially classified as a schedule I controlled substance by Congress in 1970. As statewide and public support in favor of broader marijuana reforms continues to grow, it is apparent that this federal change won’t be the last.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? and the author of the book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws.