The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on Friday that it is reopening a public comment period on hemp regulations following months of intense pushback from stakeholders on its original proposal.
While the federal agency already received more than 4,600 comments during the initial comment period that closed in January, it is now encouraging “additional input on several topics identified by commenters.” This seems to a sign that USDA is willing to provide more flexible regulations, as many interested parties—from industry operators to members of Congress—have requested.
USDA listed 12 areas where they’re especially seeking additional feedback, including several that industry representatives have identified as very consequential. Here are the titles, as listed in the department’s new Federal Register notice:
1. Measurement of Uncertainty for Sampling
2. Liquid Chromatography Factor, 0.877
3. Disposal and Remediation of Non-Compliant Plants
5. Interstate Commerce
6. 15-day Harvest Window
7. Hemp seedlings, microgreens, and clones
8. Hemp breeding and research
9. Sampling Methodology – Flower vs. Whole Plant
10. Sampling Methodology – Homogenous Composition, Frequency, and Volume
11. Sampling Agents
12. DEA Laboratory Registration
This is a welcome development as far as stakeholders are concerned, giving hope that USDA could ultimately revise some of the more onerous restrictions that they’ve indicated could hamper the industry’s potential.
For example, producers have argued that the proposed rule mandating that hemp be tested only at DEA-certified laboratories will have an unnecessary bottlenecking effect and they should be able to have a wider range of labs to use. That was one policy USDA temporarily lifted earlier this year, and now it wants to hear from the public on whether it “should be permanently removed.”
Another rule that USDA paused due to feedback concerns disposal and remediation of non-compliant hemp that contains excess THC. The agency’s Interim Final Rule stipulated that so-called “hot hemp” must be eradicated under law enforcement supervision. Farmers have complained about that restriction and said they should be allowed to remediate the crop using a number of techniques. USDA wants to hear more about that proposed alternative.
The department is also open to amending the 15-day testing window and is requesting information about why many industry participants feel a 30-day window would be more appropriate, as many said during the past comment period.
USDA is reopening the comment period for the U.S. Domestic #Hemp Production Program Interim Final Rule for 30 days.
We are especially interested in hearing from growers about their experience during the 2020 production cycle under the rule.
— USDA Ag Mktg Service (@USDA_AMS) September 4, 2020
Jonathan Miller, general counsel at the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, told Marijuana Moment that the group is “hopeful” that after this comment period, USDA will arrive at a “final rule that hemp farmers and the industry can embrace.”
This new USDA announcement reopening the comment period marks the latest example of the federal government asking the public and stakeholders to weigh in on key cannabis issues.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the process of developing regulations for hemp-derived CBD products, and it indefinitely reopened its own comment period on the topic.
All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The notice reopening the comment period will be formally published in the Federal Register on Tuesday. The window to individuals to provide input will then last for 30 days, though October 8.
The department’s rule for hemp, when finalized, is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.
In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to the head of USDA, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) last month wrote to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, similarly asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.
As it stands, the earlier pilot program is set to expire on October 31. The senators aren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA this month.
Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
However, USDA has previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While the department initially said it would not reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.
Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department recently released guidelines for processing loans for the industry.
Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.
Biden Taps Marijuana Legalization Supporter To Lead Democratic National Committee
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is a strong backer of marijuana legalization—the latest example of a nominee holding cannabis policy reform views that go further than the incoming president’s.
If confirmed by party leaders on Thursday, as is expected, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison will be responsible for coordinating Democrats’ national political activities. To that end, a push from the chair to emphasize marijuana reform, which is overwhelmingly supported by Democratic voters, could be broadly influential.
Harrison made a 2020 run for a Senate seat held by outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) but didn’t prevail. During his campaign, he stressed the need to legalize marijuana as a means to promote racial justice.
“I think we should legalize, regulate and tax marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco,” he said in July. “There is simply no medical reason to lock people up over this issue. In essence, this is about common sense.”
“We know that marijuana arrests, including those for simple possession, account for a large number of drug arrests,” he said. “The racial disparities in marijuana enforcement—black men and white men smoke marijuana the same rates, but black men are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession—is just unacceptable.”
“Across the country, we are finding that states are legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana, and it’s just time for South Carolina to lead on this issue,” Harrison added.
He also criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he rescinded an Obama-era Justice Department policy that provided guidance to prosecutors on federal cannabis enforcement.
So let me get this straight… the @GOP has gone after Net neutrality, student loans, DACA, CHIP, passed a stupid tax cut for the wealthy, & now are going after legalized Marijuana. To hell with a #BlueWave … the GOP is about to experience a #BlueApocalypse18 #JustPlainDumb https://t.co/YAW2oIekVn
— Jaime Harrison (@harrisonjaime) January 4, 2018
“I believe we need to regulate marijuana just like we do tobacco. I think we need to tax it and make sure that it’s safe. I just think if you look at the science right now—the criminalization—it’s been more harmful to us as a society than not,” Harrison said in another interview. “I think we will do much better to just simply regulate and tax it just like we do alcohol and tobacco. So I’ve been very plain and outspoken on that. I think we have to decriminalize it at this point in time.”
But the likely DNC chair’s support for broad cannabis reform is at odds with Biden’s position.
Despite supermajority support for the policy change among Democrats, the president-elect has maintained an opposition to legalization. Instead, he backs decriminalizing possession, legalizing medical cannabis, modest rescheduling, expunging past records and allowing states to set their own policies free of federal intervention.
If formally elected, Harrison would be replacing Tom Perez, whose views on marijuana policy are less clear. That said, the current DNC chair did reveal a cannabis blindspot in 2019 when he attempted to joke about President Trump getting high from smoking hemp (which is non-intoxicating) and suggested that it makes people dumb.
Before Perez, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) served as DNC chair. She had long opposed cannabis reform but seems to have evolved, voting in favor of a spending bill amendment for the first time last year that called for protecting all state marijuana programs from federal intervention.
The DNC hasn’t historically warmed to marijuana reform at the pace of the party’s voters. And as recently as last year, the organization’s platform committee rejected an amendment that would have made legalization an official 2020 party plank.
Instead, the committee adopted a position calling for decriminalization, rescheduling, medical cannabis legalization, expungements and allowing state-level reform—much like Biden.
For her part, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who was recently reelected for another term, said last year when asked about medical marijuana that the issue is “left up to the states and there’s going to be variances between states.”
“But that’s not something that the RNC puts forward as policy,” she said. “That’s a legislative issue.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s choice of Harrison to lead the Democrats’ political operation represents yet another pick whose position on legalization breaks with his own.
The president-elect announced earlier this month that he wants Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) to run the Commerce Department. The governor came out in support of legalization in 2019, and she released a budget proposal last year that called for a state-run regulatory model for cannabis.
Biden also recently selected a nominee lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D)—who is amenable to reform. And in his role, he could help facilitate federal cannabis rescheduling.
For attorney general, Biden is nominating Judge Merrick Garland, who has not been especially outspoken about his views on marijuana policy. While advocates expressed concern about his commentary in a 2012 federal appeals case on marijuana scheduling, he doesn’t appear to have been publicly hostile to a policy change.
In positive news for advocates, the president-elect is also set to nominate former prosecutor and civil rights activist Vanita Gupta as associate attorney general. She favors cannabis legalization and has strongly condemned harsh criminalization policies for non-violent drug offenses.
Local Massachusetts Lawmakers Unanimously Approve Psychedelics Decriminalization Measure
Local Massachusetts lawmakers on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelics—the latest in a national movement to reform laws on entheogenic plants and fungi.
Prior passing the measure in a 9-0 vote, the Somerville City Council took testimony from two people with personal experience benefiting from the therapeutic use of psychedelics. Several members of the council also discussed the failures of the drug war and the potential medical value of entheogenic substances, particularly as it concerns mental health.
The resolution was supported by the mayor.
“By decriminalizing psychedelic plants, Massachusetts can mainstream harm-reduction strategies as therapists and health providers embrace these compounds for physical, psychological, and spiritual relief,” Decriminalize Nature, Bay Staters for Natural Medicines and the Heroic Hearts Project said in written testimony to lawmakers.
“Somerville has a chance to empower our neighbors, friends, and loved ones to seek the physical and spiritual relief they need and put public health above incarcerating people even in cases of addiction and abuse of controlled substances,” they wrote.
Quote:"no … officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults"
— JT Scott (@JTforWard2) January 15, 2021
Under the proposal, enforcement of laws against psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca would be among the city’s lowest priorities. It also calls on the county prosecutor to cease pursing cases for persons charged with possessing or distributing entheogens.
The measure states that “the City Council hereby maintains it should be the policy of the City of Somerville that the investigation and arrest of adult persons for planting, cultivating, purchasing, transporting, distributing, engaging in practices with, and/or possessing entheogenic plants… shall be amongst the lowest law enforcement priority for the City of Somerville.”
It also stipulates that “no City of Somerville department, agency, board, commission, officer or employee of the city, including without limitation, Somerville Police Department personnel, should use any city funds or resources to assist in the enforcement of laws imposing criminal penalties for the use and possession of entheogenic plants by adults.”
Thank you to my colleauges Councilor Clingan @JesseForWard4, Councilor Scott @JTforWard2, and Mayor @JoeCurtatone for filing tonight's Resolution supporting the decriminalization of enthiogenic plants, fungus, and cacti – proud to co-sponsor. pic.twitter.com/SrXkNdQNuT
— Ben Ewen-Campen (@BenForWard3) January 14, 2021
“I love living in a city where this is not controversial and you got unanimous support,” Council President Matt McLaughlin said at the close of the meeting. “Let’s end this war on drugs, and this is a good step.”
Watch the lawmakers discuss the psychedelics reform resolution, starting around 25:45 into the video below:
With Thursday’s vote, Somerville joins a growing number of cities across the U.S. that have enacted psychedelics decriminalization. Most of the reforms have advanced legislatively, though Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction to decriminalize via the ballot in November.
In Oregon, November’s election saw the passage of a historic initiative to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. The governor announced in November that applications for an advisory board to oversee implementation of the program were being accepted up until January 1.
Much of this reform progress can be traced back to Denver, which became the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May 2019. Since then, activists in more than 100 cities have expressed interest in pursuing psychedelics decriminalization.
In Oakland, the first city where a city council voted to broadly deprioritize criminalization of entheogenic substances, lawmakers approved a follow-up resolution last month that calls for the policy change to be adopted statewide and for local jurisdictions to be allowed to permit healing ceremonies where people could use psychedelics.
A California state senator plans to file a bill to decriminalize psychedelics for the 2021 session.
Meanwhile, after Ann Arbor legislators passed a decriminalization resolution in September, a county prosecutor recently announced that his office will not be pursuing charges over possessing entheogenic plants and fungi—“regardless of the amount at issue.”
North Dakota Lawmakers File Bill To Significantly Expand Marijuana Decriminalization Law
North Dakota lawmakers have introduced a bill to significantly expand marijuana decriminalization in the state.
The legislation, which was filed on Monday, would build on an initial cannabis decriminalization law that was enacted in 2019.
Under the current statute, possession of half an ounce or less of marijuana is an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, with no jail time. The new proposal would make possession of up to an ounce a non-criminal offense that carries a $50 fine.
Further, possession of more than one ounce and less than 250 grams would be treated as an infraction, rather than a class B misdemeanor, as it is currently classified.
Possessing more than 250 grams of marijuana would be a class B misdemeanor and possessing more than 500 grams would be a class A misdemeanor.
The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Shannon Roers Jones (R) and Sen. Scott Meyer (R) in their respective chambers. It’s been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 250 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.
“It’s encouraging to see Rep. Roers Jones and her colleagues continue the push to reduce harsh and senseless penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana in North Dakota,” Jared Moffat, state campaigns manager at the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Decriminalization is no substitute for legalizing and regulating marijuana for adults, as several of North Dakota’s neighbors have now done. But passage of this bill would continue the trend of progress the state has seen in recent years.”
Activists are moving forward with plans to put a cannabis legalization ballot initiative before voters in 2022.
The measure, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, was submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger on Monday. If its language is accepted, the campaign will be able to start signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.
The same team behind the new initiative came close to putting a similar measure on the state’s ballot last year, but petitioning efforts were impeded by the coronavirus pandemic.
A separate group of advocates, Legalize ND, also attempted to qualify a different legalization initiative in 2020 that would have allowed retail sales but excluded a home grow option. That organization is also considering plans for its own 2022 measure.
Previously, a 2018 legalization push that did qualify for the ballot was defeated. Voters in the state did approve a measure to legalize medical cannabis in 2016, though the law was scaled down by the legislature the following year.
While activists are skeptical that the legislature has the appetite to enact the policy change on their own, it is the case that lawmakers may feel increased pressure given that voters in neighboring South Dakota and Montana elected to legalize cannabis in November.
Read the new North Dakota marijuana decriminalization bill below: