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.”
Colorado is a leader in every step of the hemp supply chain, maintaining a careful balance of regulatory oversight and economic support.
It is critical that the USDA establish a regulatory structure that allows our farmers to succeed. https://t.co/Isqausxc7l
— Rep. Joe Neguse (@RepJoeNeguse) January 30, 2020
“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.
As the @USDA continues to create a path forward for #hempfarming, I joined my colleagues from CT & @bryanhurlburt in sending a letter to @SecretarySonny advocating for a system that ensures farmers have the flexibility they need to enter the hemp industry. https://t.co/Pm7qUWa3Mq
— Rep. Joe Courtney (@RepJoeCourtney) January 30, 2020
“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.
In a letter sent today to the @USDA, ABA recommended several changes to an interim final rule that would facilitate banks offering services to hemp growers and hemp-related businesses. Read the letter: https://t.co/ZhIiMGeK3U
— American Bankers Association (@ABABankers) January 29, 2020
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.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Idaho Medical Marijuana Activists ‘Likely’ To Seek Signature Gathering Relief After Court Ruling
A campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Idaho is preparing to potentially collect signatures again, as they are likely to seek the same relief that a federal court recently granted a separate campaign that found its petitioning efforts crippled by the coronavirus pandemic.
The judge said activists behind Reclaim Idaho, which is pushing an initiative on school funding, can start collecting signatures in-person and electronically for 48 days starting July 9. While the Idaho Cannabis Coalition wasn’t involved in that case, they feel the ruling will apply to them and they’re actively monitoring the situation.
“We are in the process of working with the local medical marijuana campaign to assess whether Judge Winmill’s order provides a route for the medical marijuana initiative to still qualify for the November ballot,” Tamar Todd, legal director for the New Approach PAC, which is lending support to the state cannabis effort, told Marijuana Moment.
“The medical marijuana campaign is similarly situated to the Reclaim Idaho campaign and will likely ask for a similar extension of time and permission to collect signatures electronically from the Secretary of State, and if necessary, from the District Court,” she said. “I don’t know the exact timeline as there are a number of moving pieces but it will be quick.”
On June 23, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill gave the state two options: either allow electronic signature gathering for 48 days or simply place the Reclaim Idaho initiative on the ballot regardless of the signature requirement. The state chose neither and proceeded to request that the ruling be stayed.
The judge denied the state’s request to stay the order, so the signature gathering for the school funding campaign can proceed on July 9. The state has since filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to challenge the lower court’s ruling.
“The district court order severely and unquestionably disrupts Idaho’s election,” the state deputy attorney general wrote in the motion.
The deadline to submit 55,057 signatures to qualify the cannabis initiative passed on May 1, shortly after the group announced it was suspending petitioning activities because of the health crisis and the stay-at-home social distancing measures the state enacted. The cannabis campaign said it has about 45,000 raw signatures on hand at this point, and they’re confident that can fill the gap if they get the deadline extension and electronic petitioning option.
Under the proposed measure, patients with qualifying conditions could receive medical cannabis recommendations from physicians and then possess up to four ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
While advocates say passing medical marijuana in one of the remaining states without such policies on the books would be a victory for patients in its own right, it could also have outsized federal implications. A House-passed bill to protect banks that service state-legal cannabis businesses from being penalized by federal regulators is currently sitting in limbo in a Senate committee chaired by a senator who represents the state.
Creating a medical marijuana program in Idaho, which is one of small handful of states that don’t yet even have limited CBD laws, could put additional pressure on Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) to move the financial services legislation in Congress.
Summer Dreams Of Marijuana-Infused Slushies Are Melted By Oklahoma Regulators
Bad news for Oklahoma medical marijuana patients trying to beat the summer heat with a marijuana-infused slushy: State regulators say the icy beverages “are unlikely to meet requirements set forth in Oklahoma statutes and rules” for cannabis products.
As the weather heats up, THC-infused slushy machines have been popping up at more and more Oklahoma dispensaries. Made by companies such as Glazees, which offers flavors such as watermelon and blue raspberry, the THC-infused drinks sell for about $12-$15.
But despite their popularity with some patients, regulators say the slushies fail to comply with a number of state rules, such as a requirement that products be packaged in child-resistant containers. Dispensaries themselves also “are not allowed to alter, package, or label products,” regulators said.
State rules further require that all medical marijuana products be tested in their final form. “In this instance, the finished product is the slushy mixture to be dispensed to patients/caregivers, not the syrup,” regulators said. “If water, ice, or any other substance is added to the product, additional testing is required to ensure the product is safe for consumption and final-product labeling is accurate.”
The OMMA has received multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries. Learn more here: https://t.co/3b6XFzYe2f pic.twitter.com/MPq4Z3PWft
— Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (@OMMAOK) July 2, 2020
Regulators didn’t specify how adding water or ice to cannabis products could affect consumer safety, however.
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA) issued the update on Thursday in what it called a “slushy-machine guidance” memo. The office said it had received “multiple inquiries regarding the processing and dispensing of marijuana-infused slushies on-site at medical marijuana dispensaries.”
It’s not the first obstacle encountered by Oklahoma marijuana businesses, which began popping up across the state voters passed a medical marijuana law in 2018.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a wide-ranging medical cannabis expansion bill, which would have allowed out-of-state residents to obtain temporary licenses, permitted licensed businesses to deliver marijuana to customers and eliminated jail time for for first-time possession convictions. But Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) then vetoed the bill, and lawmakers didn’t hold a vote to override the action.
Oklahoma activists also filed a proposed marijuana legalization ballot measure in December, but it’s unlikely the campaign can gather enough signatures to put the measure before voters this November. Their signature-gathering was largely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and only last week did the state Supreme Court rule that the campaign could initiate petitioning. Supporters now have about 90 days to gather nearly 178,000 signatures from registered voters.
Photo courtesy of Max Pixel
Virginia Lawmakers Announce Plans To Legalize Marijuana, One Day After Decriminalization Takes Effect
Only a day after a new marijuana decriminalization law took effect in Virginia, top state lawmakers are announcing that they’re already looking ahead to full legalization.
A group of Democratic legislators on Thursday announced plans to introduce a bill to legalize and regulate a commercial cannabis market in the state. While the measure isn’t set to be filed until next year, lawmakers framed legalization as necessary in the fight for social and racial justice.
“Decriminalizing marijuana is an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but there is still much work to do,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D) said in a press release. “While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased.”
Other lawmakers backing the broader legalization push include Sens. Adam Ebbin (D) and Jennifer McClellan (D), as well as Del. Steve Heretick (D).
On Wednesday, the state’s new marijuana decriminalization policy took effect. The law, approved by lawmakers earlier this year and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D), removes criminal penalties for low-level marijuana possession. Under the change, having up to an ounce of cannabis is now punishable by a $25 fine and no threat of jail time or a criminal record.
Prior Virginia law punished simple marijuana possession with up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine and a long-term criminal record.
“This bill will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization with a framework that addresses both public safety and racial equity in an emerging market,” Herring said of the new law, which she sponsored in the House of Delegates and Ebbin led in the Senate.
The decriminalization measure also contains a provision to study future legalization. It requires a bevy of executive agencies, including “the Secretaries of Agriculture and Forestry, Finance, Health and Human Resources, and Public Safety and Homeland Security,” to convene an expert working group to study the matter. That panel’s report is due in November.
A separate legislative agency, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), is also studying the impacts of possible legalization as the result of yet another resolution approved by lawmakers this year.
Lawmakers said on Thursday that the JLARC report, which is due in December, would inform how they shape legalization legislation they expect to file in 2021.
“Elements of the JLARC study include review of best practices from states such as Illinois that have developed a legal framework, testing and labelling recommendations, and measures to reduce illicit sales,” according to a press release from Ebbin’s office. “The study will also examine how best to provide redress and economic opportunity for communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, and recommend programs and policies to reinvest in affected communities.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus doesn’t want to wait for the results of the two reviews, however, and is pushing fellow lawmakers to take up cannabis legalization during a special session in August. In addition, the caucus has said its members intend to file bills to implement automatic expungement, ban no-knock warrants, require courts to publish racial date on people charged with low-level offenses and enact other sweeping criminal justice reforms.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, development director for the legalization advocacy group NORML and executive director of the group’s Virginia chapter, said the organization, which has worked with lawmakers on past reforms, looks forward to continuing to bring evidence-based cannabis policy to Virginia.
“For far too long, young people, poor people, and people of color have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization, and Virginia must take immediate steps to right these past wrongs and undo the damage that prohibition has waged upon hundreds of thousands of Virginians,” Pedini said. “It is time to legalize and regulate the responsible use of cannabis by adults in the Commonwealth.”
Ebbin said that despite the meaningful step of decriminalization, the state still has a long way to go.
“Today Virginia is taking an important first step in reducing the harm caused by the criminalization of cannabis,” he said in a statement. “The prohibition of marijuana has failed and the consequence of this failure has been felt overwhelmingly by Virginians of color, but it has not ended. It will only end when it is replaced by a regulated adult-use market that emphasizes equity—making whole those who have been burdened most by making sure they have a seat at the table and access to the marketplace. We are looking forward to doing the hard work needed to get this right.”
In the meantime, the Senate Democratic Caucus has announced it will pursue a bill during the special session next month to end law enforcement searches of people or vehicles based solely on the smell of marijuana, which critics say is a recipe for discriminatory enforcement. The group also noted that the chamber approved legislation during the regular legislative session that would have expunged certain marijuana charges and convictions, but that those bills didn’t make it to the governor’s desk.