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.
Connecticut Governor Says He’s Open To Smoking Marijuana After He Signs Legalization Bill
The governor of Connecticut said on Friday that he isn’t ruling out smoking marijuana after he formally signs a legalization bill into law next week.
While most top politicians might still demure when asked if they’d partake in cannabis given ongoing stigma and federal prohibition, Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said matter-of-factly that “time will tell” when asked by a reporter if people can “expect to see the governor smoking a joint” after legalization goes into effect in the state.
News 12’s John Craven replied incredulously, “Really? You’re open to it?”
LIGHT IT UP?: Will we see @GovNedLamont partake in newly legal marijuana?
Check out his answer: pic.twitter.com/XVP3d5fDNi
— John Craven (@johncraven1) June 18, 2021
The governor first shrugged, then nodded his head yes.
“Not right now, but we’ll see” Lamont said.
Other governors in legal states have been playful about cannabis culture and their own relationship to the plant. But while a growing number of lawmakers are comfortable discussing their past marijuana use, this is a fairly remarkable exchange for the sitting top executive officer of a state.
It’s also a sign of the times, as congressional lawmakers step up the push to end federal prohibition and legalization bills move through numerous state legislatures.
Connecticut lawmakers sent Lamont an adult-use legalization bill on Thursday, and he’s confirmed his intent to sign it into law. It would make the state the 19th to have enacted the policy change and the fourth this year alone.
And while the governor has consistently emphasized the important of social equity in legalization legislation—at one point threatening to veto the bill because of a provision he felt could undermine its intent to effectively stand up disparately impacted communities—he also seems to see the personal benefits of the reform.
Similar to Lamont’s new comments, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) raised some eyebrows in 2018 when he said in an interview that he grows cannabis himself. But then a spokesperson for his office denied that he actually personally cultivates marijuana.
Minnesota Marijuana Reform Could ‘Move Forward’ In Special Session That Just Launched, Top Lawmaker Says
Even though a Minnesota House-passed marijuana legalization bill died in the Senate without action by the end of this year’s regular session, a top lawmaker says there’s still a “possibility to move forward” on cannabis reform as part of a special session that began this week.
“Nobody really expected the medical program to be so successfully changed this year,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler (D) said at a rally with cannabis reform advocates on Wednesday, referencing a separate measure Gov. Tim Walz (D) signed last month that will allow patients to access smokable cannabis products.
According to The Star Tribune, Winkler added that “surprising things can happen” during a special session. “When you see Republican support and Democratic support in the House and Senate, there is a possibility to move forward.”
Photos from today’s emergency rally at the Capitol 📸
Thank you to House Majority Leader @_RyanWinkler, Sen. @ScottDibble, Rep. @jeremymunson, and Sen. @jimabeler for speaking and advocating for the decriminalization of cannabis in Minnesota. #mnisready for change! pic.twitter.com/c5T1ffqSuy
— Minnesotans for Responsible Marijuana Regulation (@mnisready) June 16, 2021
Advocates with Minnesota NORML are pushing for several specific policies to be incorporated into legislation that is set to be taken up by the legislature during the special session. The first is to expand the state’s decriminalization policy, and the second is to have the state petition for a federal exemption for Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.
Part of the motivation behind that latter proposal is to ensure that registered patients are able to lawfully purchase and possess firearms in spite of federal restrictions.
At the rally, which was organized by NORML, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) and other groups, Winkler and several other lawmakers spoke in favor of modest policy changes such as decriminalizing cannabis.
“Decriminalizing small amounts is important,” Rep. Jeremy Munson (R), one of only a handful of Republicans who voted for Winkler’s broad adult-use legalization bill, said at the rally. “If someone in Minnesota gets caught with two gummy bears, it’s a felony and they’ll lose their gun rights forever.”
The coalition proposed several key reforms that they say should be integrated into public safety and health legislation that’s currently moving through committee during the special session:
-Further reduce penalties for simple possession of marijuana.
-Allow people convicted of possession up to eight grams of cannabis to petition the courts for expungement.
-Require the Minnesota health commissioner to petition the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for an exemption for its medical marijuana program.
”Reducing or eliminating the criminal penalties we’re seeing around marijuana is where we have consensus,” Thomas Gallagher of RAMP said in a press release. “Let’s focus on the people who have small quantities. There is injustice in a trivial amount of marijuana resulting in life-changing punishments like imprisonment, criminal records, and lost jobs and kids.”
Rally for Our Special Session Agenda:
1. Decrim law reform: reduce penalties for concentrates & ensure a petty is not a crime in fed court.
2. Medical reform: Require Minn to petition for a fed exemption fr Schedule 1 for Minn's Med Cannabis patients.https://t.co/9S8Vwz4yoB
— Minnesota NORML (@MNNORML) June 15, 2021
Similar to the Minnesota activists’ call, Iowa officials have requested that federal agencies guarantee some level of protection for people participating in the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution in April seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.
Back in Minnesota, the House approved a bill last month to legalize marijuana for recreational use following 12 committee assignments. That legislation stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, however.
Advocates are hopeful about the possibility that further cannabis reforms could be accomplished in the special session, but they see an obstacle in Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R), who has been relatively silent on the issue since the end of the regular session.
He did previously say, however, that “we’re always said we were open to lowering the criminal penalties [for marijuana].”
The decriminalization legislation that advocates are rallying behind would make possession of up to eight grams of cannabis a petty misdemeanor. It would also make people with prior convictions for that level of possession eligible for expungements.
Under the separate medical cannabis expansion bill that the governor has signed, adults 21 and older will be able to access smokable marijuana products. That policy must take effect by March 1, 2022, or earlier if rules are developed and the state’s cannabis commissioner authorizes it.
Dispensaries could also provide a curbside pickup option for patients under the new law. It further removes restrictions for designated caregivers and allows them to tend to six registered patients at once, rather than just one.
Walz, who hadn’t been especially vocal about legalization as the broader legislation advanced during the regulator session, said, “I’ve thought for a long time about that,” adding that “we know that adults can make their own decisions on things, we know that criminalization and prohibition has not worked.”
“I’ve always thought that it makes sense to control how you’re doing this and to make sure that adults know what they’re getting into, and use it wisely,” he said. “I also think there’s a lot of inequity about how folks have spent time in jail or been arrested around this, especially in communities of color.”
The majority leader’s legalization legislation as introduced was identical to a proposal he filed last year, with some minor technical changes. Winkler, who led a statewide listening to gather public input ahead of the measure’s introduction, called it the “best legalization bill in the country” at the time. It did not advance in that session, however.
Under the measure, social equity would be prioritized, in part by ensuring diverse licensing and preventing the market from being monopolized by corporate players. Prior marijuana records would also be automatically expunged.
Walz in January he called on lawmakers to pursue the reform as a means to boost the economy and promote racial justice. He did not include a request to legalize through his budget proposal, however.
The governor did say in 2019 that he was directing state agencies to prepare to implement reform in anticipation of legalization passing.
Winkler, meanwhile, said in December that if Senate Republicans don’t go along with the policy change legislatively, he said he hopes they will at least let voters decide on cannabis as a 2022 ballot measure.
Heading into the 2020 election, Democrats believed they had a shot of taking control of the Senate, but that didn’t happen. The result appears to be partly due to the fact that candidates from marijuana-focused parties in the state earned a sizable share of votes that may have otherwise gone to Democrats, perhaps inadvertently hurting the chances of reform passing.
In December, the Minnesota House Select Committee On Racial Justice adopted a report that broadly details race-based disparities in criminal enforcement and recommends a series of policy changes, including marijuana decriminalization and expungements.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Maine Lawmakers Approve Bill To Decriminalize All Drugs On 50th Anniversary Of Nixon’s ‘War On Drugs’
The Maine House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill to decriminalize possession of all currently illicit drugs, delivering a victory to reform advocates on the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs.
The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday, but has not yet taken a vote.
The proposal, LD 967, was approved in 77-62 vote in the House. It would make possession of controlled substances for personal use punishable by a $100 fine, without the threat of incarceration. That fine could also be waived if a person completes a substance misuse assessment within 45 days of being cited.
“We are continually trying to criminalize a symptom of a disease. It hasn’t worked. It won’t work,” Rep. Charlotte Warren (D), who serves as the House chair of the legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said before the vote. “We have tried criminalizing this disease for decades, and 11 Mainers a week are dying.”
Rep. Anne Perry (D), sponsor of the bill, said that incarcerating people who are suffering from addiction “only proves to them that they are as bad as they think they are” and perpetuates the cycle of substance misuse. “Law enforcement is not the gateway to treatment and recovery. It’s a gateway to isolation and suicide.”
The measure’s passage flies in the face of Gov. Janet Mills (D), whose administration opposes the reform, as does the state attorney general. Coupled with opposition from Republican legislators, the bill faces an uphill battle to final passage.
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The Senate also began consideration of the legislation on Thursday night, adopting a different committee report than the House approved, but setting it aside as unfinished business before taking a final vote on the bill. The version moving forward in that chamber would similarly impose a $100 fine for possession, but only for the first two offenses. Subsequent offenses would be considered Class E crimes that could carry jail time.
These actions come one month after a joint House and Senate committee advanced the decriminalization bill with several conflicting recommendations, as well as another measure to reform the state’s drug trafficking laws.
Supporters of the legislation include the American Academy of Pediatrics’s Maine Chapter, Maine Medical Association, Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services in Maine and Maine Council of Churches.
Thursday’s decriminalization vote represents a continuation of a national conversation about the need to reform laws criminalizing people over drugs and treat substance misuse as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice matter.
For the first time ever, a congressional bill to federally decriminalize possession of controlled substances—and incentivize states to do the same—was formally introduced on Thursday.
Last year, Oregon voters elected to end criminalization of low-level drug possession at the ballot.
Vermont lawmakers also introduced a bill in March that would end criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs in the state.
Also that month, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on decriminalization legislation to replace criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs with a $100 fine.
Back in Maine, a bill was recently introduced that would legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes.