The newly confirmed head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given final approval to a federal rule laying out regulations for the hemp industry, despite outstanding concerns from advocates about certain provisions.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is widely considered an ally of the hemp industry, signed off on the rule following a departmental review that began during the presidential transition. It will take effect on March 22, as originally planned.
“As part of the transition to the new Administration, the final rule was under additional review by the Department,” Bill Richmond, head of USDA’s Domestic Hemp Production Program, wrote in an email to stakeholders on Monday. “The rule has now been cleared by Secretary Vilsack to move forward as published in the Federal Register.”
A separate message from the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service said that as part of the presidential transition, “USDA and many other agencies took the opportunity to review new and pending regulatory actions” and that the “routine process” is done “to ensure longstanding as well as new programs are structured and resourced appropriately and to ensure programs are implemented to best serve their intended stakeholders.”
USDA released the final rule in January—about two years after the crop was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. Industry stakeholders say the enactment of these regulations generally represents a positive step forward that will provide businesses with needed guidance, but they’ve also pointed to a number of policies that they hope to revise as the market matures such as USDA’s hemp testing requirements.
With this final authorization by Vilsack, the regulations won’t be subject to further revision ahead of the effective date. However, advocates and stakeholders say they will continue to push for changes as the market evolves.
“We were very pleased to see the final rule improvements over the interim final rule,” Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, told Marijuana Moment, referring to revisions that the department made after releasing its initial proposed regulations. “It’s a much-improved document. It was very clear that the USDA listened to the industry and to hemp farmers and took heed.”
“There are a few issues still remaining, including the continued involvement of the [Drug Enforcement Administration] in registering labs” to test hemp, he said. “But we are real hopeful that we can resolve issues like that through continued discussions with the USDA and/or legislation in Congress.”
Larry Farnsworth, a spokesperson for the National Industrial Hemp Council (NIHC), told Marijuana Moment that the group would more broadly “be in favor of a delayed enforcement of specific provisions regarding sampling and testing.”
“We do need regulatory certainty and NIHC appreciates what USDA is doing,” he said. “The benefit of delayed enforcement of specific provisions is that it keeps the rule in place, allowing everyone to move forward, without forcing regulators and the industry to implement costly and uncertain methodologies that would no longer be needed with the new legislation.”
The federal Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy expressed a similar sentiment in a blog post in January, writing that it is “pleased with some of the changes that [USDA] has made to the rule, as they offer more certainty and are less burdensome to small farmers,” but “some concerns remained unaddressed in the final rule.”
Also that month, Biden administration USDA representatives held their first meeting with hemp industry stakeholders to learn about the market’s needs.
Even as USDA has crafted its rules and built up advisory committees that involve hemp business representatives, it has spent past months reviewing and approving numerous state and tribal regulatory proposals—most recently for Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, the presidential transition has impacted pending rules and policies from the former Trump administration—including those concerning CBD.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in January withdrew draft guidance on CBD enforcement that had been submitted for review to the White House under Trump last year. There are few details about what the proposal included, but it was expected to give the industry a better understanding of the federal perspective when it comes to marketing cannabis products.