What’s that? Hemp making a comeback? An illegal Substance 1 drug? Has the Drug Enforcement Administration gone soft on cannabis crime?
No, that’s not likely. But when it comes to hemp, and medicinal CBD derived from hemp, all of which is treated as a Substance 1 drug by the DEA, recent legislature moves on hemp may ignite more of a rush to look at the whole issue of cannabis legalization, especially in light of the recent news from Pennsylvania that is now allowing more licenses for hemp.
According to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture recently expanded the industrial hemp program, which allows it to be grown for research purposes. Berks County Senator Judy Schwank spearheaded the legislation that legalized the growing of industrial hemp.
Her legislation was SB 50, which would allow the cultivation and processing of industrial hemp in Pennsylvania as part of a research program at a college or university, in accordance with federal law, under the regulation of a five member Industrial Hemp Licensing Board that would be established within the Department of Agriculture. It was approved December 7 by the Pennsylvania Senate, while companion legislation introduced in the House made its way through the General Assembly and onto the governors’s desk in July, 2016.
For 2018, the state will permit up to 50 individual growers or institutions of higher education to grow up to 100 acres each. Institutions of higher education may also partner with individual growers to produce larger quantities of hemp. Last year, the department limited the number of growers to 30, each of whom could grow no more than five acres.
Many in the cannabis industry believe this is another sign of a subtle change in the government’s position on cannabis in general.
But one thing is certain: There is a clear economic incentive to produce industrial hemp today. “This is not a million dollar opportunity or even a billion dollar opportunity,” Geoffrey Whaley, chairman of the National Hemp Association said during the BudTech Summit at the University of Maryland-Bio Park in September. “Hemp and hemp products represent a multi-trillion dollar opportunity. We need to research it, we need to figure out how we can use it so we can start creating these products and taking them to the marketplace.” He says he is probably one of the few people who has a working relationship with the DEA on a regular basis. “I also work with the deputy attorney general. And they are 100 percent supportive of industrial hemp. It’s the laws under Congress that prevent that from moving forward. Remember: CBD is not technically legal under federal law.”
According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) paper published in March, “Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity,” production in the United States is restricted due to hemp’s association with marijuana, and the U.S. market is largely dependent on imports, both as finished hemp-containing products and as ingredients for use in further processing (mostly from Canada and China).
Current industry estimates report U.S. hemp sales at nearly $600 million annually.
The story of how we got here in the modern age with industrial hemp – one of the country’s original cash crops dating back to the 1600’s – actually began in the early 1990s.
According to the CRS report, there was a sustained resurgence of interest to allow for commercial hemp cultivation in the United States. Several states conducted economic or market studies and initiated or enacted legislation to expand state-level resources and production. Congress made significant changes to federal policies regarding hemp in the 2014 farm bill (Agricultural Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-79, §7606).
The 2014 farm bill provided that certain research institutions and state departments of agriculture may grow hemp under an agricultural pilot program. The bill further established a statutory definition for industrial hemp as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol is the dominant psychotrophic ingredient in Cannabis sativa.
In subsequent omnibus appropriations, Congress has blocked the DEA and federal law enforcement authorities from interfering with state agencies, hemp growers, and agricultural research. Appropriators have also blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from prohibiting the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp that is grown or cultivated in accordance with the 2014 farm bill provision.
But there is still the issue with the Feds. Under current U.S. drug policy, all cannabis varieties—including industrial hemp—are considered Schedule I controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA, 21 U.S.C. §§801 et seq.), and DEA continues to control and regulate hemp production.
Strictly speaking, the CSA does not make growing hemp illegal; rather, it places strict controls on its production and enforces standards governing the security conditions under which the crop must be grown, making it illegal to grow without a DEA permit.
In other words, a grower needs to get permission from DEA to grow hemp or faces the possibility of federal charges or property confiscation.
Further guidance from DEA, USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), issued in August 2016, provides additional clarification regarding federal authorities’ position on industrial hemp and its future policies and enforcement actions regarding its cultivation and marketing.
But look at the big global picture: Currently, more than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity, which is sold on the world market. But there is no large-scale commercial production in the United States, and the U.S. market depends on imports.
All that changes – or at least begins a more substantive change – with the new licensing in the state of Pennsylvania. There is movement domestically, and there is growing interest from legislators. And advocates are working to continue the momentum.
Whaley personally witnessed the transformative change that CBD derived from hemp does to a person’s life when he connected with Charlotte Figi, a young girl who suffered thousands of seizures a month before using CBD. She was the inspiration for Charlotte’s Web, a CBD extract produced by the Stanley brothers in Colorado.
Whaley’s organization has now helped pass legislation in 19 states to give families access to CBD for their children.
There’s more action on the issue. On Capitol Hall in August, Republican Congressman James Comer introduced HR 3530, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017, which would declassify cannabis sativa L, or hemp, as a Schedule I narcotic under U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency policy. Comer said the bill has the credibility and bipartisanship it needs to become law. As Kentucky’s commissioner of agriculture and later on the campaign trail, Comer promoted the cannabis sativa plant variety for its commercial uses.
That bill could be step 1 of a longer process to deschedule all of cannabis. “We got a lot of work to do,” Whaley says.
He says that his organization is in the “final throes” of putting together a national industrial hemp center of excellence, which will be a 50,000 square foot facility for researchers to come to do their research, and to take it to the next level to prove out the things about the plant that are already known to be true. “We believe those things to be true about industrial hemp, but the world and industry will never accept them unless the research is done here in the United States,” Whaley says.