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USDA Got More Than 4,600 Hemp Comments Prior To This Week’s Deadline

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The deadline to submit comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on proposed regulations for hemp was Wednesday—and advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers had a lot to say.

In the three months since USDA published an interim final rule for hemp, which was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, more than 4,600 individuals and organizations took the opportunity to weigh in, with many recommending certain revisions before rules for the crop are finalized.

On Wednesday alone, more than 1,000 comments were posted—a significant number considering that the public comment deadline was initially set for the end of last month until USDA extended it based on the volume of responses.

Here’s what lawmakers, stakeholders and advocates had to say about USDA’s proposed regulations:

While many celebrated the department’s commitment to quickly developing rules for the crop, there have been widespread, bipartisan concerns about select provisions that the industry and its supporters say could hamper its growth and create unnecessary burdens for farmers.

Several members of Congress, including entire congressional delegations representing Virginia, Maine, Colorado and Connecticut, have sent letters to USDA outlining requests for changes to the rules. Most inquiries identify the same specific concerns: 1) the negligence threshold for the allowable amount of THC is too low and doesn’t account for factors such as drought that can cause potency levels to spike, 2) the 15-day testing window before harvest is too short and 3) requiring testing to be conducted at Drug Enforcement Administration-licensed laboratories is onerous and will cause delays.

“Colorado continues to see tremendous growth in this industry and we are excited for the economic potential of this new crop,” the state’s congressional delegation wrote in a letter sent on Tuesday. “Therefore, it is critical the USDA establish a regulatory structure that allows our farmers to succeed.”

“While the [interim final rule] begins to formulate a much needed regulatory structure, there are key provisions that are unnecessary, burdensome, and could hurt Colorado’s hemp industry,” they said.

The Connecticut congressional delegation made similar points in a letter sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue on Wednesday.

“While [the proposed rules] help define the path forward for our farmers who wish to grow hemp, they contain a number of restrictive requirements that may prevent these very people from even taking advantage of the new agricultural opportunity,” the lawmakers said. “Our state’s hemp farmers want an opportunity to grow hemp, and have it treated the same as any other agricultural commodity. The rule as currently written assumes hemp is a controlled substance until it is proven otherwise.”

USDA also heard from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D) and the state’s attorney general and agriculture commissioner, who submitted comment on Wednesday identifying eight areas in the proposed rules that they argue need “modification.” Those areas include issues with regulations around sampling periods, lab certification requirements, THC thresholds and disposal protocol.

“As an early mover state in hemp, we understand the pivotal role a workable regulatory structure plays in allowing a new industry to flourish and we appreciate the hard work your staff has undertaken to construct a framework for states to operate their own hemp programs,” the letter, a hard copy of which was submitted on Colorado-grown hemp paper, states. “We understand that establishing a regulatory framework is a difficult task and we appreciate your willingness to consider the alternative approaches to regulating hemp as well as the legal issues set forth in this document.”

In a press release, Polis said “Colorado is the top state for hemp production, and we are proud of our work to increase good jobs and honored to help the Department of Agriculture figure out what we already know about hemp in Colorado.”

“We want to unleash this industry to grow and innovate. The proposed interim final rule, as currently written, does not support best practices in hemp production at a critical time in the development of this important industry,” he said. “The recommended changes we’ve put forward will support the hemp industry while establishing appropriate guidelines.”

The advocacy group Vote Hemp sent its comments on Wednesday, stating that it “believes the USDA has taken steps in the right direction in drafting the [interim final rule], however certain  provisions do raise serious concerns for our stakeholders, hemp producers, processors and  manufacturers.”

The negligence threshold, sampling protocol, testing and disposal requirements and laboratory restrictions were among the group’s chief concerns.

“We appreciate that the Agency also wants to get feedback after the 2020 growing season,” Vote Hemp said, adding that it recommends that USDA hold “another comment period in the 2nd half of 2021 and issue a final rule in the fall of 2021 after having more time to see how the new [interim final rule] has been working.”

“We sincerely appreciate your consideration of these comments and look forward to working with the Agency to ensure a strong and successful hemp industry,” the group said.

On Monday, Vermont’s agriculture department submitted comments to USDA, expressing similar concerns about the regulations.

Again, the top problems the state agency identified concern the THC threshold, sampling protocol and laboratory certification requirements.

“We believe our suggestions will improve the hemp program making it better for small growers while creating more opportunities for those making a living from hemp,” Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts said in a press release. “I hope the USDA will consider providing States with the necessary flexibility to be able regulate hemp production while providing Vermont farmers with greater certainty and less risk.”

Michigan’s agriculture department said in comments submitted Wednesday that it “looks forward to working with USDA to develop and implement a strong industrial hemp program that’s compliant with the intent of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 and is economically viable for Michigan hemp growers and processors.

The letter focused primarily on the THC threshold, with the department arguing that the “regulatory fear that hemp could potentially exceed a 0.3 percent concentration of THC and the unfair suspicion that it will be grown and used for illicit purposes must be balanced with the reality that all but three states have legalized Cannabis sativa L in at least some form or fashion.”

“Throughout North America, the combined legality of hemp at the federal level, and marijuana at the state level, has resulted in many positive outcomes including, but not limited to, new business opportunities, job creation, increased state sales tax revenue, and improved quality of life,” the letter states. “These positive outcomes far outweigh the perceived negative consequences of growing hemp that marginally exceeds 0.3 percent.”

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) sent in its comments on Tuesday, reiterating that the proposed testing window is too short, the THC threshold is too low and the laboratory requirements are unnecessary, among other concerns.

“On behalf of NASDA state and territorial members, we are grateful for your dedicated work in establishing a federal program that facilitates the growth of a promising new industry while accommodating the diverse needs and challenges of farmers across our country,” the organization wrote. “Given their own diverse resources and challenges, our members will benefit from greater clarity from USDA in meeting the requirements of the 2018 Farm Bill. We ask that you incorporate these concerns, as well as the feedback from our individual members, as you advance a final rule.”

Outside of the practical, agriculture-specific provisions, others have raised questions about finance implications. The American Bankers Association (ABA) said in comments submitted Wednesday that it sees three possible problems with the interim final rule.

Federal guidances stipulates that hemp businesses are entitled to financial services, but it requires them to be licensed—and currently, USDA’s rules only allow federal, state and local enforcement officials to access the licensing database, so ABA wants to expand access to banks. ABA also said licenses should be able to be automatically renewed to avoid uncertainty. Finally, it is seeking clarification on what happens to licenses when “unanticipated events, such as a death or illness, occur between planting and harvesting.”

“ABA appreciates the opportunity to comment on the USDA interim final rule on domestic hemp production. We believe that, with important changes to the rule, farmers will be encouraged to consider a crop which has a great deal of promise for a variety of uses, including clothing, construction, and as a replacement for plastics,” the letter concludes. “However, some of the practical limitations, as discussed above, must be addressed to ensure that risks are appropriately mitigated and that farmers and their lenders feel comfortable supporting this industry.”

Of course, these comments represent just a small fraction of the more than 4,600 that have been submitted. Many individuals engaged in the hemp industry also shared their thoughts and concerns, though many echoed the same points about excess restrictions and requirements.

“Enforcing these regulations will be impossible to uphold and will create an extra stress on farmers who already have so many variables to contend with in a new emerging industry,” one commenter wrote. “Free the industry, move out of the small farmers way. Stop favoring large corporate interest.”

Another person wrote that the “0.3 percent THC requirements are not founded in any science and just downright silly.”

“These strict requirements will do nothing but hurt the farmers as well as the end product that is produced,” they said. “I recommend at least a 1 percent THC threshold, which would allow farmers to focus on producing quality CBD biomass without the added worry of losing everything because of a meaningless percentage.”

A commenter based in Kentucky expressed frustration over the rule’s proposed 10-year ban on participation in the hemp industry by certain people with prior felony drug convictions.

“I believe that it is hypocritical, and cruel to restrict these persons from the hemp/cannabis industry,” the comment states. “We love our neighbors and family members—we need them to have every opportunity to get their lives back. Judicial consequences have failed tremendously in the war on drugs.”

It remains to be seen how much stock USDA will put into the public comments, but in any case, it’s clear that not only is interest in the regulations strong and widespread, but recommendations on changes are largely consistent.

This story has been updated to include comments from the Colorado congressional delegation.

Pro-Legalization Group Ranks Best And Worst Governors On Marijuana

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill In Committee

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A bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in Texas—as well as a separate proposal to reduce penalties for possessing cannabis concentrates—advanced out of a key House committee on Friday.

These are the latest developments that have come after a week where Texas lawmakers have considered a medley of marijuana reform measures. But arguably the most significant piece of cannabis legislation to move out of committee would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a class C misdemeanor that carries a fine but no threat of jail time.

The full House of Representatives approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, but it did not advance in the Senate that session.

This time around, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee approved the decriminalization bill, which would also prevent law enforcement from making arrests over low-level possession. Other decriminalization proposals that were under consideration by the panel this week would not prohibit that enforcement action, which is key because police are currently able to incarcerate people who are arrested for class C misdemeanors even though the charge itself does not carry the risk of jail time in sentencing.

The advancing legislation, HB 441, sponsored by Rep. Erin Zwiener (D), would also prevent the loss of a driver’s license or the creation of a criminal record for possession of up to one ounce.

Separately, the committee advanced legislation to make possession of up to two ounces of cannabis concentrates a class B misdemeanor.

Both bills were among the subjects a lengthy hearing the panel held on Tuesday.

“Marijuana bills are moving through the committee process at record speed this session,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “There’s good reason to be optimistic about the upcoming votes and the House and advocates will be doubling down their efforts to influence senators.”

This action comes one day after the House Public Health Committee unanimously approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program.

Sponsored by Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R), the bill would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (for veterans only) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

It would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

On Thursday, the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee also discussed legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products.

While the Texas legislature has historically resisted most cannabis reforms, there are signs that this session may be different.

House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”

The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.

“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”

Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.

Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.

Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.

Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.

Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.

That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber.

Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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Nevada Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Bill To Allow On-Site Consumption Lounges

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A bill to allow on-site marijuana consumption lounges advanced through a Nevada Assembly committee on Friday. The panel separately passed a measure making it so the concentration of THC in a person’s blood cannot be singularly used to determine impairment while driving.

The social use legislation, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager (D), would create two new licensing categories for cannabis businesses in the state. One would be for “retail cannabis consumption lounges” and the other would be an “independent cannabis consumption lounge.”

Existing retailers could apply for the former license and sell products that could be consumed on-site by adults 21 and older. Independent lounges would not be permitted to sell cannabis on their own, but would need to have marijuana products delivered to consumers from another source.

That said, independent licensees could submit a request to regulators to sell cannabis that they produce or to enter into a contract with an adult-use retailer to sell their products.

The state’s Cannabis Compliance Board would also be responsible for creating regulations for on-site facilities and setting fees for license applicants. Businesses that qualify as social equity applicants would have a reduced fee.

Under the legislation, a person “who has been adversely affected by provisions of previous laws which criminalized activity relating to cannabis, including, without limitation, adverse effects on an owner, officer or board member of the applicant or on the geographic area in which the applicant will operate” is considered a social equity applicant.


Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 900 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Yeager proposed a large-scale amendment to the proposal before it was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It builds on the definition and scoring system for social equity applicants, revises public safety requirements for lounges and ensures that products purchased at lounges cannot be removed from the facility, among other changes.

The Las Vegas City Council in 2019 approved an ordinance allowing for social consumption sites within city limits.

That year, Alaska became the first state to enact regulations that provide for the on-site use option at dispensaries. Colorado followed suit with legislation approved that legalized cannabis “tasting rooms” and “marijuana hospitality establishments” where adults could freely use cannabis. Social consumption sites are also provided for in New York’s recently enacted marijuana legalization law.

In Nevada, adding new license types and giving consumers this option—especially in the tourist-centric state—could further boost marijuana and other tax revenues. And Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) has had a particular interest in ensuring that those tax dollars support public education, which he talked about during a State of the State address in January.

Sisolak has also committed to promoting equity and justice in the state’s marijuana law. Last year, for example, he pardoned more than 15,000 people who were convicted for low-level cannabis possession.

That action was made possible under a resolution the governor introduced that was unanimously approved by the state’s Board of Pardons Commissioners.

Under the impaired driving bill that separately cleared the committee on Friday, the per se blood test for THC would no longer be used in determining impairment.

Advocates have argued that the limit is arbitrary and there’s a lack of scientific evidence demonstrating a link between the amount of THC metabolites present in the blood and active impairment.

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

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Biden Gets Yet Another Congressional Letter Blasting Marijuana-Related White House Firings

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President Joe Biden has received yet another letter from a lawmaker demanding answers about his administration’s practice of firing or otherwise punishing staffers for prior marijuana use.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) noted the national push to end prohibition and how the White House’s actions reveal a troubling disconnect.

“Cannabis is legal for either medical or adult use in 36 states, with numerous states pursuing efforts to further legalize for adult use,” the congresswoman wrote. “In Minnesota, our state legislature is expected to vote on measures to legalize cannabis in the coming months following years of political and community organizing by activists throughout the state.”

“Minnesotans and the American people are demanding change to our harsh and unequally applied cannabis laws,” she wrote. “I look forward to seeing your Administration reverse course on this harmful and unnecessary hurdle to hiring diverse and talented public servants.”

Craig also mentioned efforts to legalize marijuana at the federal level and commented on Biden’s prior statements on more modest reforms.

“I stand ready to work with you as we revisit our country’s drug laws, including the descheduling of cannabis as a Class 1 drug at the federal level,” she said. “You have previously expressed your commitment to decriminalizing cannabis in acknowledgement that a cannabis conviction or even the stigma of cannabis use can ruin lives and prevent people from voting, gaining employment and contributing to society.”

This is the third letter from lawmakers that Biden has been sent regarding the federal marijuana employment controversy.

A coalition of 30 members of Congress sent a letter last month that sharply criticizes the administration for terminating or punishing multiple White House staffers who disclosed their prior cannabis use. They pointed out that Vice President Kamala Harris and at least one one other Cabinet member are on record about their own marijuana use experiences.

Prior to that, Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) sent a similar message to the president condemning news of the marijuana-related firings for people who were honest about their history with cannabis on a federal form that’s required as part of the background check process.

“Simply put, in a nation where the truth is considered malleable, we need to demonstrate to our young public servants that telling the truth is an honorable trait, not one to be punished,” the congressman wrote. “I respectfully request that your administration discontinue punishment of staff for being honest about their prior cannabis use and reinstate otherwise qualified individuals to their posts.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed the controversy last month, saying during a press briefing that while Biden could theoretically end the policy of firing staff over prior marijuana use himself, that’s not happening as long as cannabis is federally illegal.

She later said that the president’s stance on marijuana legalization “has not changed,” meaning he’s still opposed to the comprehensive reform.

Psaki has previously attempted to minimize the fallout over the cannabis firings, with not much success, and so her office released a statement last month stipulating that nobody was fired for “marijuana usage from years ago,” nor has anyone been terminated “due to casual or infrequent use during the prior 12 months.”

Read the new letter to Biden on White House marijuana employment policy below: 

Letter to Biden Regarding C… by Marijuana Moment

New Mexico Governor Sends Marijuana Bill Sponsors A ‘Save The Date’ For Expected Legalization Bill Signing

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