A coalition of state agriculture officials, farmers and drug policy organizations are teaming up to press the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to limit the scope of a ban on participation in the legal hemp industry by people with felony drug convictions.
The chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee made a letter from the groups public on Thursday during a hearing at which federal officials provided updates on progress toward implementing the federal legalization of hemp that was part of the 2018 Farm Bill.
The large-scale agriculture legislation also included the felony ban despite broad opposition from drug policy and criminal justice reform advocates. But in response to that pushback, lawmakers reached a compromise on a scaled-down version that made it into the bill, which President Trump signed in December.
Rather than instituting a blanket ban on participation in the legal hemp market by those convicted of a drug felony as it was initially drafted, the provision states that the ban expires 10 years after the conviction. But the coalition said it’s concerned that a misreading of even the less far-reaching measure could exclude people from participating in a wide range of hemp-connected occupations, while they say congressional intent was to have it applied only to individuals seeking to actually hold a license to produce hemp.
“Although Congress specified that the hemp felony ban should apply to producers, there are many occupational roles that could be interpreted to be involved in hemp production,” the letter, sent last month to USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, states. “Should the provision be interpreted in an inappropriately broad manner, state agricultural authorities and the private sector would be required to conduct costly background checks, screen and track workers involved in hemp production operations such as cultivation, processing, packaging and transporting hemp products.”
The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, American Farm Bureau Federation, Drug Policy Alliance and Vote Hemp each signed the letter, which was entered into the congressional record by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) at the start of the hemp implementation hearing—the second congressional meeting on cannabis of the week.
“We believe a fair reading of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 and the accompanying conference report indicates that Congress intended for this provision to only apply to individuals seeking a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with a state, tribal or USDA plan,” the organizations wrote.
While the provision’s language is somewhat vague, including “any person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance” in a ban on participating “in the program established under this section” as well as producing “hemp under any regulations or guidelines issued under” the bill, the coalition pointed to the conference report as evidence that lawmakers didn’t intend to have the ban enforced across the board.
The report states that “[a]ny person convicted of a felony relating to a controlled substance shall be ineligible to participate under the state or tribal plan for a 10-year period following the date of the conviction.”
However, it goes on to specify that “this prohibition shall not apply to producers who have been lawfully participating in a state hemp pilot program as authorized by the Agricultural Act of 2014, prior to enactment of this subtitle.”
That specific language demonstrates that the “felony ban clearly applies to producers,” the coalition wrote.
“These requirements that a producer must meet to lawfully participate in a State, Tribal or Federal plan are consistent with the roles and responsibilities of an individual seeking a license or authorization from the government. The hemp felony ban therefore applies to individuals seeking to obtain and maintain a license or authorization from the government to produce hemp. The hemp felony ban should not apply to any other individuals engaged in lawful hemp production under a State, Tribal or Federal plan, including any individuals employed by a producer.”
“We therefore urge USDA to follow congressional intent and limit the application of the felony ban only to individuals seeking to obtain a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018,” the letter concludes.
“It’s critical that USDA implement the felony ban as narrowly as possible given the many harms its enforcement will impose,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment. “These harms include the unnecessary hardship on states, the agriculture industry and individual farmers of policing workers, to the denial of job opportunities in this fast growing industry to qualified workers on the basis of a prior conviction alone, including communities of color disproportionately convicted of drug offenses.”
Read the full letter pushing for a narrow interpretation of the hemp felony ban below:
This story was updated to include comment from Smith.