Bipartisan congressional lawmakers have introduced a new bill that seeks to end what they say is a “discriminatory” federal policy that bars people with prior felony drug convictions from owning or leading legal hemp businesses.
Reps. David Trone (D-MD), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Nancy Mace (R-SC) are sponsoring the “Free to Grow Act,” which narrowly addresses that past conviction provision of the 2018 Farm Bill that federally legalized hemp.
Pingree said in a press release on Tuesday that, despite legalization, “the industry’s growth is being stunted by red tape, discriminatory policy, and regulatory uncertainty.”
Congress is set to pass a new version of the Farm Bill this year.
“The upcoming Farm Bill gives Congress a once-in-five-years opportunity to correct the unfair policy that bans people with drug convictions from growing hemp,” she said. “I am proud to join Reps. Trone, Joyce, and Mace in that effort by introducing the Free to Grow Act, addressing this injustice and supporting a thriving hemp economy.”
The bipartisan legislation would strike language from the Farm Bill currently stipulating that anyone who’s been convicted over a felony drug offense in the past 10 years cannot lawfully serve in certain roles in a licensed hemp business—a provision that became a point of concern for advocates as Congress moved to end the cannabis prohibition and stand up a new marketplace.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) clarified in 2019 that the ban would only apply to “key participants” such as chief executives who have a direct financial interest in the business or those who serves as top executives. That means personnel such as maintenance workers are exempt from the prohibition, which is in line with the narrow interpretation that advocates pushed for.
Now the lawmakers are seeking to do away with the prohibitory language altogether. The bill text, which was shared with Marijuana Moment on Tuesday, states simply: “Section 297B(e)(3)(B) of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639p(e)(3)(B)) is repealed.”
Trone said that “even though employment is the number one indicator of decreased recidivism, returning citizens are still unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent.”
“To make matters worse, after paying their debts to society, returning citizens are prohibited from doing what’s best for their business or pursuing a career path of their choice—that’s not justice,” he said. “In my business, I hired over 500 returning citizens because I know giving folks a real second chance leads to economic growth and a better community. It’s wrong to keep folks from rebuilding their lives.”
I also introduced the Free to Grow Act with @RepDaveJoyce, @RepNancyMace, and @chelliepingree. Hemp production is a growing industry, yet folks with a felony drug conviction are prohibited from taking part in it. Our bill would change that and give folks a real second chance.
— Rep. David Trone (@RepDavidTrone) March 7, 2023
Joyce said that “outdated federal cannabis laws continue to create barriers to innovation and hinder economic development, even in industries that deal with the federally legalized and non-intoxicating part of the plant.”
“That’s why I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing the Free to Grow Act which will rightfully allow more Americans to participate in the federally legalized hemp industry without government interference and stigmatization,” he said.
Mace noted that “reentering society after paying your debts is hard enough.”
“Let’s not put more restrictions on an already legal business for these peoples. Hemp is legal and used for a variety of circumstances, including stress and skin conditions,” she said. “The bipartisan Free to Grow Act will lift this prohibition on the restriction and allow those formerly incarcerated to thrive in the hemp industry.”
A coalition of advocacy groups is backing the reform proposal, including Americans for Prosperity (AFP), DREAM.Org, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Due Process Institute, Minorities for Medical Marijuana Cannabis & Hemp Policy, R St Institute and the U.S. Hemp Roundtable.
Pingree has long advocated for changes to the hemp components of the Farm Bill, filing separate legislation in past sessions that included eliminating the felony conviction ban but also incorporated proposed revisions that are supported by many industry stakeholders such as increasing the THC threshold for legal hemp and removing a requirement that the crop be tested only at laboratories certified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
On that latter point, USDA did announce late last year that it is temporarily delaying enforcement of the DEA-registered lab requirement due to “inadequate” capacity of such facilities. The rule did not go into effect on January 1 as originally planned. At earliest, the industry-contested rule will go into force on December 31, 2023.
USDA announced in January that it was launching a weekly newsletter to provide “unbiased, timely, and accurate data” on the hemp industry. That development came shortly after the department started sending out thousands of surveys to hemp farmers across the country as part of its annual effort to learn about how the market has evolved.
In 2020, USDA announced plans to distribute a separate national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS), meanwhile, released a report last year that outlined a number of ways that stakeholders hope to see federal hemp laws revised to better support the industry through the next Farm Bill.
Recently, the Law Library of Congress issued a milestone report on hemp regulations, which looked at how different countries address issues such as cultivation, product testing and licensing legal businesses.
Separately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said earlier this year that it will not be creating rules to allow the marketing of CBD as dietary supplements or food items, leaving the massive industry without regulations despite repeated calls for administrative action from lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders.
Following a “careful review” of the non-intoxicating cannabinoid, FDA said it reached the conclusion that the existing regulatory pathways that are in place for other dietary supplements and food additives will not work for CBD. Instead, the agency said that wants to “work with Congress on a new way forward.”
Read the text of the Free to Grow Act below:
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.