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USDA Releases Proposed Hemp Regulations For Public Comment

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released draft rules for hemp manufacturing on Tuesday and said it will soon begin accepting state regulatory plans for the newly legal crop.

The interim final rule on hemp will be formally published in the Federal Register on Thursday, with a 60-day public comment period to follow. Once the rules are finalized, USDA will begin to evaluate states’ and tribes’ submitted regulations plans, and any jurisdictions that do not send proposals will fall under the department’s general guidelines for producing the crop, which was federally legalized under the 2014 Farm Bill.

The regulations cover the requirements for where hemp can be grown, THC testing standards, the disposal process for crops that don’t meet federal standards and licensing protocols.

“At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers, and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release.

“We have had teams operating with all hands-on-deck to develop a regulatory framework that meets Congressional intent while seeking to provide a fair, consistent, and science-based process for states, tribes, and individual producers who want to participate in this program,” he added.

After the regulations are finalized, USDA said it will make a determination about state or tribal plan applications within 60 days of their submission. Jurisdictions that submit applications to process hemp under USDA’s guidelines rather than their own local rules will be reviewed within 30 days of their submission. Prospective state or tribal applicants can obtain the necessary forms here.

The interim rule will sunset in two years, after which point USDA will issue final regulations.

Multiple lawmakers and industry stakeholders celebrated the announcement, emphasizing that federal guidelines will further empower hemp businesses to thrive.

Shawn Hauser, partner and chair of the hemp and cannabinoids practice group at Vicente Sederberg LLP, said that “there is an undeniable sense of progress that comes with reading federal regulations for hemp farming in the U.S.—something that was outlawed for decades, which so many people fought to achieve.”

But not all of the specific details are positive, she said.

“Many people will be disappointed to see such stringent enforcement provisions related to concerns about hemp exceeding legal THC limits. For example, the rules require disposal of ‘hot hemp’ by a federal agent, even if there are reasonable options to remediate it and avoid loss of a crop,” Hauser said, referring to plants that exceed legal THC limits. “These provisions feel like relics of prohibition and come at a risk and expense to farmers, but they do not come as a surprise. It takes time to transition from prohibition to a regulatory model.”

USDA is simultaneously issuing separate guidelines for sampling and testing procedures for hemp. Samples, which have to be collected about two weeks prior to a crop’s anticipated harvest date, must be tested at Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)-registered laboratories.

Hemp is defined under the farm bill as having 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis. USDA clarified that testing protocol will involve an analysis of the total THC content, including THCA, which can be converted into the traditional psychoactive compound upon decarboxylation.

The plan also establishes “an acceptable hemp THC level” that accounts for uncertainty in the cultivation process.

“For example, if the reported delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol content concentration level on a dry weight basis is 0.35% and the measurement of uncertainty is +/- 0.06%, the measured delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol content concentration level on a dry weight basis for this sample ranges from 0.29% to 0.41%,” USDA explained. “Because 0.3% is within the distribution or range, the sample is within the acceptable hemp THC level for the purpose of plan compliance.”

If the THC content is found to be unacceptable, however, it must be destroyed by someone authorized under the Controlled Substances Act to handle marijuana, such as a DEA registrant. A USDA official confirmed on a press call Thursday that hemp that falls outside of the acceptable THC level will not be covered by federal crop insurance.

Another provision of concern for advocates is the implementation of a 10-year ban on participation in the hemp industry by individuals with prior felony drug convictions. USDA said that ban will only apply to “key participants” such as chief executives who have a direct financial interest in the business. That means personnel such as maintenance workers will be exempt from the ban, which is in line with the narrow interpretation that advocates pushed for.

The draft document does not address the rules around whether smokable hemp flowers may be sold, which is likely because such products would fall under separate jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That absence of rules doesn’t necessarily indicate that USDA is permitting smokable hemp but the lack of clarity on the issue for now leaves room for interpretation at the state level.

Those interested in becoming producers or operating a testing facility can find guidance and forms here and here. USDA also published an updated FAQ on hemp.

The public release of the proposed regulations comes days after the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finalized its review of USDA’s interim final rule. Once the regulations are finalized, hemp farmers will be eligible for a series of federal agriculture programs, including crop insurance. Previously, USDA said farmers could only gain coverage under the 2014 version of the farm bill.

The department also clarified the rules on importing and exporting hemp seeds and plants this month—however, the interim rule states that it “does not affect the exportation of hemp” and notes that USDA will work with partners on an exportation plan if there’s sufficient interest. USDA also said in August that it would accept intellectual property applications for seed-propagated hemp.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are still pushing FDA to issue rules for CBD products, which most hemp businesses are using the crop for at this point. The agency said their rulemaking process is complicated by the fact that CBD exists as an FDA-approved drug and hasn’t been previously added to the food supply. Former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said it may take years before regulations are issued unless Congress takes action.

Read the draft USDA hemp rules below:

USDA hemp rules by Marijuana Moment on Scribd

White House Signs Off On Proposed Hemp Rules From USDA

This piece was updated to include information about USDA’s proposed regulations and to include comments from Hauser.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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

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