Wed | Jan 27, 2021

Proposed US hemp rules worry industry

Published:Friday | January 17, 2020 | 7:55 AM

Hemp growers and entrepreneurs, who were joyous a year ago after US lawmakers reclassified the plant as a legal agricultural crop are now worried their businesses could be crippled if federal policymakers move ahead with draft regulations.

Licences for hemp cultivation topped a half-million acres (200,000 hectares) last year, more than 450 per cent above 2018 levels, so there’s intense interest in the rules the United States government is creating. Critical comments on the draft have poured in from hemp farmers, processors, retailers and state governments.

Growers are concerned the government wants to use a heavy hand that could result in many crops failing required tests and being destroyed. The US Department of Agriculture, USDA, the agency writing the rules, estimates 20 per cent of hemp lots would fail under the draft regulations.

“Their business is to support farmers – and not punish farmers – and the rules, as they’re written right now, punish farmers,” said Dove Oldham, who last year grew an acre (0.40 hectare) of hemp on her family farm in Grants Pass, Oregon. “There’s just a lot of confusion, and people are just looking for leadership.”

The USDA did not respond to the criticism, but has taken the unusual step of extending the public comment period by a month, until January 29. The agency told The Associated Press it will analyse information from this year’s growing season before releasing its final rules, which would take effect in 2021.

Agricultural officials in states that run pilot hemp cultivation programmes under an earlier federal provision are weighing in with formal letters to the USDA.

“There are 46 states where hemp is legal, and I’m going to say that every single state has raised concerns to us about something within the rule. They might be coming from different perspectives, but every state has raised concerns,” said Aline DeLucia, director of public policy for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Most of the anxiety involves how the federal government plans to test for THC, the high-inducing compound found in marijuana and hemp, both cannabis plants. The federal government and most states consider plants with tiny amounts – 0.3 per cent or less – to be hemp. Anything above that is marijuana, and illegal under federal law.

Yet another cannabis compound has fuelled the explosion in hemp cultivation. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is marketed as a health and wellness aid and infused in everything, from food and drinks to lotions, toothpaste and pet treats.

Many have credited CBD with helping ease pain, increase sleep and reduce anxiety. But scientists caution not enough is known about its health effects, and the US Food and Drug Administration last year targeted nearly two dozen companies for making CBD health claims.

Still, the CBD market is increasing at a triple-digit rate and could have $20 billion in sales by 2024, according to a recent study by BDS Analytics, a marketing analysis firm that tracks cannabis industry trends.

About 80 per cent of the 18,000 farmers licensed for hemp cultivation are in the CBD market, said Eric Steenstra, president of the advocacy group Vote Hemp. The remaining 20 per cent grow hemp for its fibre, used in everything from fabric to construction materials, or its grain, which is added to health foods.

Under the draft USDA rules, farmers have no wiggle room. They must harvest within 15 days of testing their crop for THC, and the samples must be sent to a lab certified by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Samples must be from the top of the plant, where THC levels are highest, and the final measurement must include not just THC, but also THCA, a non-psychoactive component.

Crops that test above 0.3 per cent for the two combined must be destroyed. Growers with crops above 0.5 per cent would be considered in “negligent violation,” and those with repeated violations could be suspended from farming hemp.

Those provisions are causing alarm among growers and states with pilot hemp programs allowed under the 2014 Farm Bill. Some states allow THC levels above 0.3 per cent, and not all include THCA in that calculation. Many permit more harvesting time for growers after THC testing.

Farmers are lobbying for a one per cent THC limit and a 30-day harvest window to give them more flexibility, while remaining well under THC levels that can get people high.

The draft regulations don’t “seem to be informed by the reality of the crop,” said Jesse Richardson, who with his brother sells CBD-infused teas and capsules under the brand The Brothers Apothecary.

“If no one can produce (federally) compliant hemp flower, then there will be no CBD oil on the market.”

Growers are also worried about the proposed rule requiring that all THC testing be done in a DEA-certified lab because there are so few of them. Some states have only one, which would have to serve hundreds of growers in a short harvest window.

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, the USDA must approve state plans for hemp programmes. Louisiana, Ohio and New Jersey last month were the first to get the green light – but those plans might need to be reworked after final rules are written.

“What we don’t want to see is states having to write their rules and then have to change the rules again and rewrite them” after 2021, said Steenstra of Vote Hemp.