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USDA Receives Hemp Legalization Feedback From States And Stakeholders

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On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave stakeholders in the nation’s hemp economy an opportunity to provide input on rules to legally regulate the crop that are currently being developed.

Hemp, which was federally legalized as part of the 2018 Farm Bill signed by President Trump in December, had previously been restricted by the Justice Department as a controlled substance. Now USDA has primary responsibility for overseeing legal cultivation of marijuana’s non-psychoactive cannabis cousin.

But the agency is still in the process of establishing a set of regulations covering areas such as land use, certification, product testing and disposal of hemp containing excess THC. After those federal rules are in place, USDA will begin reviewing proposed hemp plans submitted by state agriculture departments.

Officials from at least seven state governments and a number of Indian tribes gave testimony during the roughly three-hour online feedback session, which was occasionally interrupted by technical difficulties, as did several hemp industry operators.

All told, more than 3,000 people tuned in to the webinar to hear three-minute presentations from some 50 scheduled speakers.

The stakeholders registered concerns about testing procedures for hemp, shipping parts of the plant and its derivatives between states, access to banking and hemp’s relation to its still-Schedule-I counterpart, marijuana.

States speak up

After the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, Kentucky’s Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles headed to Washington, D.C. to personally deliver to USDA a plan to regulate hemp, making his state the first to take formal action under the new federal legalization provisions.

“We don’t know if it can replace tobacco,” Quarles said during Wednesday’s event. “But we know it’s becoming part of our greater agriculture portfolio.”

The Kentucky Agriculture Department received more than 1,000 applications to participate this year in the state’s limited industrial hemp research pilot program that is authorized under the prior 2014 Farm Bill.

As Kentucky looks toward broader industrialization, Quarles said the state is particularly concerned about hemp farmers’ access to banking.

“These farmers and companies need access to capital just like any other farmer or agri-business,” he said.

Quarles also called for guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Congress about what the federal government plans to do about CBD and other derivatives of industrial hemp—an area of focus for Kentucky’s hemp program.

“If the FDA regulates too hard against CBD, it would really harm small Kentucky family farms,” he said. “We’ve got to develop rules that allow our farmers an opportunity to continue supporting this crop and benefitting economically from it, especially during a period of depressed farm cash receipts.”

Sara Walling, an administrator at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, oversees the department where the state’s hemp program resides. She said the application period for growing hemp in the 2019 season yielded 1,461 grower applications and 711 processor applications under the state’s research program.

She described the Badger State’s relation to hemp as “enthusiastic and energetic” but said there is still some confusion among state regulators about how to proceed.

“We’re optimistic about the future of hemp as an agricultural crop but we’re in a chicken-and-the-egg process: Which comes first, processing or production?” she said.

Regulatory and legislative officials from Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota and Pennsylvania also provided testimony.

Tribal officials weigh in

At least six representatives from groups of indigenous people described their visions for a regulated and equitable industrial hemp program. Angie Kennedy, of the Seneca Nation of Indians, sought clarification on how tribes and sovereign nations can participate in the 2019 planting season. The 2018 Farm Bill allows continued planting of hemp under the earlier 2014 legislation’s research provisions.

“But the 2014 Farm Bill, it does not allow that [tribes] can grow under those requirements,” she said. “When the USDA comes out with the regulations, it’ll be too late for this farming season.”

That concern was echoed in other speakers’ remarks as well.

Ben Fenner, an attorney with Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan LLP, spoke on behalf of the tribal attorney for the Flandro Sanchi Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Fenner said that as more hemp is cultivated, tribes cannot afford to miss out on access the market.

“Delaying this out to 2020 or beyond is going to hurt tribes,” he said.

USDA staff listen to webinar feedback from hemp stakeholders.

Supply chain concerns

Wednesday’s listening session also included testimony from groups that transport hemp and related products, along with vendors that sell the goods.

Federal regulations for interstate transportation of hemp have not yet been issued and, while the federal agriculture legislation covers the whole nation, hemp production and processing is still illegal under the laws of some states.

Collin Mooney is the executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, which represents the local, provincial, state and territorial agencies responsible for commercial motor vehicle enforcement throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

“States will need to make the necessary regulatory changes and to make officials aware of those changes,” Mooney said.

Aside from changing the legal status of hemp, Mooney said the roadside enforcement community would face other challenges. While industrial hemp is defined federally as cannabis that is comprised of 0.3 percent or less of THC, it can look and smell similar to marijuana, and available field kits only demonstrate whether THC is present in a sample, regardless of the concentration.

“Since the state drug labs that can make this distinction already have a backlog of work, this can lead to unavoidable delays in traffic stops and maybe even mistaken arrests,” Mooney said.

Regardless of the legal challenges of transporting hemp and hemp products, Peter Matz of the Food Marketing Institute, a lobbying group that represents grocery stores and pharmacies around the country, said the demand for these products is “already pretty staggering, and we know that it’s growing.”

“The fact remains that our members are seeking clarity on everything—which kinds of products can be sold and where, as well as the labeling requirements, as well as sourcing and transporting the ingredients,” he said.

Looking ahead

Until USDA’s rules are formalized, hemp farmers are still able to grow under their respective state’s hemp research pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said last month that his agency is working to create the new regulatory framework by the 2020 growing season.

“We’re proceeding very judiciously obviously because of the uniqueness of the crop hemp and its relationship to other crops that we’re not encouraging. It’s complex,” he told the House Agriculture Committee.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, outgoing head of the FDA announced that his agency will hold a similar listening session next month to discuss plans for regulating hemp-derived CBD. FDA is considering pathways to allow cannabis and its derivatives in food and dietary supplements and to permit those products to be marketed and transported between states.

The DEA Wants Help Differentiating Marijuana From Hemp

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Politics

Hemp Farmers Guaranteed Federal Crop Insurance Through Disaster Bill Amendment

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The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that is mostly focused on providing relief aid to areas impacted by natural disasters—but it also includes a provision ensuring that hemp farmers qualify for federal crop insurance.

The hemp section was inserted into the legislation at the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Though similar language already exists in the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp and its derivatives, the senator took an added measure to provide clarity to farmers who want access to the insurance option ahead of the 2020 planting season.

“Beginning not later than the 2020 reinsurance year, the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation shall offer coverage under the wholefarm revenue protection insurance policy (or a successor policy or plan of insurance) for hemp (as defined in section 297A of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 (7 U.S.C. 1639o)),” text of the provision states.

“Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985,” it continues.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 85 to 8. The House is expected to approve the disaster legislation by unanimous consent by the end of the week, and President Donald Trump has offered assurances that he will sign it into law.

The legalization of hemp has sparked strong interest among farmers in states from Colorado to Kentucky, but it will still be some time until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops and implements its federal regulatory guidelines.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that while his department would not rush its rulemaking process, it still intends to implement the regulations before the 2020 planting season. After that point, USDA would be able to approve regulatory plans submitted by individual states.

McConnell, who championed the hemp legalization provision, has urged the quick and effective implementation of such regulations, and he’s suggested that he’d introduce standalone legislation to resolve any “glitches” in its rollout.

While not a standalone bill, the hemp-focused provision of the disaster legislation seems to indicate he plans to make good on that promise.

The senator has made much of his pro-hemp agenda, arguing last month that his role in reforming hemp laws is at “the top of the list” of reasons why voters should reelect him in 2020. He also cited hemp as an agricultural alternative to tobacco when he introduced a bill this week to raise the minimum age requirement to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Mitch McConnell Touts Hemp As He Proposes Raising Tobacco Purchase Age Limit

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Congressional Report Urges DEA Action On Marijuana Cultivation Applications

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A congressional committee report attached a large-scale spending bill containing marijuana-related protections has been amended to include a call for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to finally act on long-pending applications for federal licenses to grow cannabis for research purposes.

The legislation itself, which was released by a House subcommittee last week, could still be further amended as it goes through the legislative process. But as approved by the full House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the bill stipulates that none of the Fiscal Year 2020 funds it allocates may be used by the Justice Department to interfere in state-legal medical marijuana programs.

The provision has been federal law since 2014, but its inclusion in the initial subcommittee proposal as introduced is the earliest it has ever surfaced in the legislative process for the annual spending bill. While advocates hoped broader protections for adult-use cannabis states would also be included in the base legislation, that rider isn’t in the bill—at least not yet.

There was also a technical problem with the legislation that wasn’t resolved by the committee manager’s amendment, the text of which has not been posted but was obtained by Marijuana Moment. The medical cannabis provision lists the states and territories its protections apply to—but it left out the U.S. Virgin Islands, which legalized medical marijuana in January.

Similar errors have occurred in past versions of the legislation, when legal medical cannabis states North Dakota and Indiana were not included in an earlier version of the rider, and advocates hope that the language will be amended on the House floor.

But while that fix didn’t make it into the bill at the committee level, the directive to the DEA about cannabis cultivation licenses was added to the committee report attached to the bill via the manager’s amendment.

“The Committee urges the Drug Enforcement Administration to expeditiously process any pending applications for authorization to produce marijuana exclusively for us in medical research,” the revised report states.

The DEA has faced significant pressure from lawmakers, advocates and scientists to approve applications for additional marijuana manufacturers to produce research-grade cannabis. Currently there is only one federally authorized facility, and the quality of its product has long been criticized.

DEA announced a process to license additional cultivators during the final months of the Obama administration in  2016, but the Justice Department under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to act on more than two dozen pending applications. Current Attorney General William Barr has pledged to look into the matter, and has said he agrees that approving additional manufacturers is necessary.

Advocates hope that the new committee report language could help to finally spur movement at the department.

“The DEA is a disaster on marijuana and they need to stop obstructing research ASAP,” Michael Collins, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told Marijuana Moment.

“It’s beyond ridiculous that they won’t act on these applications. Even prohibitionists like Project SAM agree,” he added, referring to the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “And when the guys who get their drug policy from the 1920s say you’re behind the times, that’s pretty embarrassing.”

Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, said that Sessions “was the only government official opposed to cannabis research, and he is no longer employed.”

“Now is the time for AG Barr to follow through on his commitment and allow researchers pathways to consumer-grade cannabis,” he said.

Another provision included in the appropriations bill would offer protections for states that have implemented industrial hemp pilot programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. The Justice Department wouldn’t be allowed to use its funds to interfere in such programs under the proposal.

Of course, the 2018 version of the agriculture legislation removed hemp and its derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act, shifting regulatory responsibility onto the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Justice Department, so that provision may not be especially relevant going forward.

The bill will next head to the Rules Committee, which will decide the list of amendments—potentially including additional cannabis-related ones—that can be considered on the House floor.

Read the text of the manager’s amendment with the DEA marijuana language below: 

Managers Amendment FINAL by on Scribd

Presidential Candidates Are Cosponsoring A New Marijuana Descheduling Bill

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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House Committee Approves Immigration Bill With Marijuana Protections

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A congressional committee voted in favor of a wide-ranging immigration bill on Wednesday, and the legislation includes marijuana-related protections for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.

Under the DREAM Act as approved, having low-level cannabis convictions, or engaging in state-legal cannabis-related activities such as working in the regulated marijuana industry, would not be counted against applications for permanent resident status for so-called Dreamers.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill in a 19-10 vote, without specific discussion about the cannabis provisions.

The section concerning eligibility for permanent status stipules that having three or more misdemeanor convictions could be grounds for ineligibility—but the bill creates an exemption for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

The text seems to indicate that immigrants who engaged in cannabis-related activities prior to a state reforming its marijuana laws would still be protected even if that activity was not state-legal at the time.

Similar language appears under a separate section about grounds for a provisional denial of an application for adjustment of status. Applicants would be exempted from such a denial if their conviction was for “simple possession of cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia” or “any offense involving cannabis or cannabis-related paraphernalia which is no longer prosecutable in the State in which the conviction was entered.”

A previous version of the legislation, filed in March, didn’t include the specific eligibility requirements related to certain criminal activity, nor did it contain any explicit marijuana protections. It’s possible that House Democrats thought up the exemptions during a brainstorming session earlier this month about potential bill revisions aimed at building more support.

The next likely stop for the DREAM Act will be the House Rules Committee before heading to a full floor vote.

There’s been growing interest in reforming marijuana policies as they apply to immigrants and visitors to the U.S.

Earlier this month, four congressional Democrats sent a letter to the head of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security to end the practice of rejecting naturalization applications solely because the applicant worked in a state-legal marijuana market. That came after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released a memo specifying that such activity could render them morally unfit for citizenship.

And last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced legislation aimed at resolving marijuana-related border issues, whereby visitors who admit to using cannabis or working in their country’s legal industry can be denied entrance.

New Congressional Bill Aims To Resolve Marijuana Industry Border Issues

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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