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Proposed Changes To Hemp Rules Could ‘Create Confusion’ In The Industry, Congressional Researchers Say



Hemp provisions of a large-scale agriculture funding bill that is advancing in the House could “create confusion” for the industry due to a lack of clarity around the type of allowable products, congressional researchers say.

In a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) that was published on Monday, analysts looked at proposed changes to federal hemp rules under two pieces of legislation that recently moved through committee and that have stirred controversy among cannabis stakeholders.

Most of the report focuses on how the measures as amended would effectively ban many consumable hemp-derived cannabinoids, including CBD products containing any “quantifiable amounts” of THC. It would also clarify that intoxicating synthetic cannabinoids such as delta-8 THC are prohibited.

“Congress is continuing to debate these proposed changes as it proceeds to consider these bills,” CRS said. “These provisions have both supporters and detractors.”

Supporters include prohibitionist groups and certain major marijuana companies, while the hemp industry largely opposes the language, even if stakeholders generally agree that there’s a need to create a regulatory framework for consumable hemp products to address public health concerns that have emerged since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill.

CRS said the provisions wouldn’t necessarily ban all consumable hemp cannabinoid products, “but would require determinations by [U.S. Department of Agriculture] based on available scientific research and quantification methods.” But hemp stakeholders say the proposal would fundamentally disrupt the cannabinoid market.

“This approach recognizes the rapidly evolving landscape of hemp derivatives,” the report says.

The provisions CRS described have been included in an Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies appropriations bill, as well as the 2024 Farm Bill, both of which were approved in committee in the past month.

But unlike the Farm Bill language, the amendment adopted in the separate spending legislation “does not include a definition of industrial hemp, although the bill makes allowances for industrial hemp for use in hemp cannabinoid products,” CRS said. “This exclusion could create confusion since the term is not defined.”

Meanwhile, the Farm Bill that advanced through the House Agriculture Committee last month also contains provisions that would reduce regulatory barriers for certain hemp farmers and scale-back a ban on industry participation by people with prior drug felony convictions.

Specifically, it would make it so the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), states and tribal entities could choose to eliminate a policy that prevents people with felony drug convictions in the past 10 years from being licensed to produce industrial hemp.

However, advocates had hoped to see more expansive language, such as what was described in Senate Democrats’ recent summary of their forthcoming Farm Bill draft. Under that plan, there would be a mandate to eliminate the ban, rather than simply authorizing it, and it would cover all hemp producers, not just those growing it for non-extraction purposes.

That said, the Senate Agriculture Committee has not yet released the draft text of their bill, so it remains to be seen if the summary description matches what will ultimately be released. Bipartisan House lawmakers filed standalone legislation last year that would broadly lift the felony ban for would-be hemp producers.

Lawmakers and stakeholders have also been eyeing a number of other proposals that could be incorporated into the Farm Bill—and which could come up as proposed amendments as the proposal moves through the legislative process—including measures to free up hemp businesses to legally market products like CBD as dietary supplements or in the food supply.

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In the background, the hemp market started to rebound in 2023 after suffering significant losses the prior year, the latest annual industry report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that was released in April found.

The data is the result of a survey that USDA mailed to thousands of hemp farmers across the U.S. in January. The first version of the department’s hemp report was released in early 2022, setting a “benchmark” to compare to as the industry matures.

Bipartisan lawmakers and industry stakeholders have sharply criticized FDA for declining to enact regulations for hemp-derived CBD, which they say is largely responsible for the economic stagnation.

To that end, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf testified before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee in April, where he faced questions about the agency’s position that it needed additional congressional authorization to regulate the non-intoxicating cannabinoid.

USDA is also reportedly revoking hemp licenses for farmers who are simultaneously growing marijuana under state-approved programs, underscoring yet another policy conflict stemming from the ongoing federal prohibition of some forms of the cannabis plant.

For the time being, the hemp industry continues to face unique regulatory hurdles that stakeholders blame for the crop’s value plummeting in the short years since its legalization. Despite the economic conditions, however, a recent report found that the hemp market in 2022 was larger than all state marijuana markets, and it roughly equaled sales for craft beer nationally.

Meanwhile, internally at USDA, food safety workers are being encouraged to exercise caution and avoid cannabis products, including federally legal CBD, as the agency observes an “uptick” in positive THC tests amid “confusion” as more states enact legalization.

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Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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