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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.

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.

Politics

Texas Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization In Committee Vote

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A Texas House committee approved a marijuana decriminalization bill on Monday that would make simple possession punishable by a fine, with no jail time, and without having to go on an individual’s criminal record.

The legislation passed in a 5-2 vote out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and now heads to a separate panel responsible for placing bills on the calendar for floor debates.

Possession of one ounce or less of cannabis would be punished with a $250 fine for the first two offenses. After that, possession would be considered a class C misdemeanor, which is still a lesser penalty compared to current law. As it stands, possession of two ounces or less is a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 180 days in jail as well as a permanent criminal record, which carries steep collateral consequences.

Earlier this month, the committee held a hearing on the legislation and heard testimony about the long-term impacts of having a low-level cannabis conviction on a person’s record and how removing criminal penalties for possession can free up law enforcement resources so that officers can tackle more serious crimes.

Advocates are hopeful that the full House will embrace the modest reform measure, even as the legislature contemplates other cannabis policies such as expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program.

“We are very optimistic about the chances of HB 63 passing on the floor of the Texas House,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “Overall, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that we shouldn’t be wasting valuable criminal justice resources arresting and prosecuting people for small amounts of marijuana. Texas is ready.”

While medical cannabis expansion, to say nothing of adult-use legalization, remains a dubious prospect in the conservative stronghold, removing the threat of jail time for possession has gained popularity among Texas Republicans. Delegates for the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform plank last year that endorses marijuana decriminalization, for example.

“We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” the plank states.

What’s more, the policy has even received a tentative green light from Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has said he is open to legislation that would reduce penalties for simple possession.

During a gubernatorial debate last year, Abbot said he doesn’t want to see “jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana” and floated the idea of reducing the penalty for marijuana possession from a class B to a class C misdemeanor.

According to Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, the legislation currently has 32 authors or co-authors.

Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Connecticut Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill In Key Committee

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A key committee in the Connecticut legislature approved a bill to legalize marijuana on Monday.

The General Law Committee, which is one of two panels that heard testimony about legalization legislation last week, voted 10 to 8 to advance the bill.

Beyond legalizing cannabis for adult use, the legislation also includes a number of social equity provisions aimed at encouraging participation in the legal industry by individuals from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the drug war. A governor-appointed commission would be charged with giving such individuals advance time to apply for a marijuana business license and promote diversity in hiring.

“At the end of the day, if we’re moving, it’s not about revenue. It’s about equity,” Rep. Juan Candelaria (D) said at the meeting. “It’s about ensuring that these communities that have been impacted, that we say we’re not going to stay idle anymore.”

The commission would also be required to study the potential impacts of allowing cannabis microbusinesses and a home cultivation option, which are not currently included in the bill. Delivery would be permitted, however.

While advocates generally support the bill, there are some outstanding concerns about the lack of a home grow option. The lack of specific licenses for delivery services and on-site consumption facilities is another sticking point.

“Marijuana prohibition was borne of misinformation and racism and it continues to be enforced unequally to this day,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said at last week’s hearing.

It’s not yet clear whether the legislature will ultimately pass this proposal or a separate bill in the Senate, but if either does end up on the desk of Gov. Ned Lamont (D), he’s expected to sign. The governor called legalization one of his “priorities” last year and also discussed the issue during a budget speech last month.

The legislature’s Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on legalization legislation on Thursday.

A separate bill to revise the state’s medical cannabis program by adding opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions and eliminating a registration certification fee for patients and caregivers was also approved by the General Law Committee on Monday.

Connecticut Lawmakers Hold Two Simultaneous Hearings On Marijuana Legalization Bills

This story was updated to note the committee’s vote tally.

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Marijuana Legalization Vote Cancelled Due To Lack of Support In New Jersey Senate

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Marijuana reform advocates experienced a setback on Monday after bill to legalize cannabis in New Jersey was pulled from the agenda due to a lack of votes to pass the legislation in the Senate.

The proposal would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess, consume and purchase marijuana from licensed retailers. It included a number of social equity provisions meant to encourage participation in the industry by individuals from communities most harmed by the war on drugs, and it also would’ve created a pathway for expedited expungements for prior cannabis convictions.

Two committees—the Assembly Appropriations Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee—approved companion cannabis legalization bills last week.

But while Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and leading lawmakers reached a compromise on certain details on how to carry out legalization earlier this month, the legislation faced resistance and was taken off the table hours before scheduled votes in the Senate and Assembly.

“History is rarely made on the first try,” Murphy said in a press conference. “Certainly I’m disappointed but we are not defeated… We all remain committed to passing this bill and making our state a national model for justice and opportunity because ultimately this is the right thing to do for New Jersey, and we know the people of New Jersey are on our side.”

“While we are all disappointed that we did not secure enough votes to ensure legislative approval of the adult use cannabis bill today, we made substantial progress on a plan that would make significant changes in social policy,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) said in a statement. “This fight is not over. We need to learn from this experience and continue to move forward. While this legislation is not advancing today, I remain committed to its passage.”

“The legalization of adult-use marijuana will get passed in the state of New Jersey, one way or another,” he added at a press conference. “Anybody who thinks this is dead, they’re wrong.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) echoed those sentiments.

“Today we may not be able to get a bill over the finish line but I’m proud of the effort we made and the discussions we had. It’s a big and complicated issue,” he said in a press conference. “We all remain committed to enacting fair and responsible legislation that will be groundbreaking and a national model.”

According to a whip count tracking tool for the legislation that was created by NJ.com, a majority of senators (23) planned to vote “no” as of Monday morning, compared to just eight who said they’d vote in favor of the bill, with nine others undetermined. Other sources indicated that 18 senators planned to vote “yes.”

In the days leading up to the Monday session, the legislation received a number of high-profile endorsements, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rev. Al Sharpton and CNN host Van Jones. The governor’s office also released a list of quotes supporting the bill from lawmakers, activists and spiritual leaders.

“With this bill, New Jersey legislators can send a strong message to the country that marijuana legalization and social justice must be inextricably linked,” Booker said last week. “I’m hopeful our state will succeed in setting this example.”

Those endorsements were ultimately not enough to convince a sufficient number of on-the-fence state senators, some of whom raised concerns about the potential public health and safety impacts of legalization.

“This is a tragedy for social and racial justice in New Jersey. This legislation was supported by a broad coalition of civil rights, advocacy and faith organizations across the state and the majority of New Jersey voters,” Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said. “But, we will not give up. We will continue to fight for marijuana legalization legislation centered on racial and social justice. It is only a matter of time before this legislation is enacted and all New Jerseyans can share in the benefits it will create.”

Prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana described the news as a “huge victory for us.”

“They told us legalization was inevitable, and this action proves them wrong, Kevin Sabet, the group’s president, said in a press release.

With the cancellation of the vote, it may be months before lawmakers take up the idea again.

“Voters and lawmakers both agree that the practice of treating marijuana consumers as second-class citizens must end. Unfortunately, legislative intransigence regarding how best to create a regulatory framework has resulted in, at least for now, a continuation of the failed policy of marijuana criminalization in the Garden State,” NORML Political Associate Tyler McFadden said in a press release.

“[I]t should be acknowledged that, to date, no state has taken legislative action to regulate the adult use marijuana market,” she said. “In every jurisdiction where regulations exist, they were enacted by a direct vote of the citizenry. Based on current polling in New Jersey, we have little doubt that, if provided the opportunity, Garden State voters would take similar action.”

A poll last month found that New Jersey adults support legalizing marijuana, 62 percent to 32 percent.

Diversity Provisions Added To Marijuana Banking Bill Up For Congressional Vote This Week

This story was updated to add comment from Sweeney, DPA, NORML and SAM.

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

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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