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USDA Touts Hemp Industry’s Growth But Says Challenges Remain

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Hemp production in the U.S. has scaled up rapidly since lawmakers lifted federal prohibition of the crop, with more acres of hemp grown in the country today than at any point since the 1940s. But the fledgling industry is still very much in flux, and reporting practices that vary wildly from state to state have hampered efforts to fully understand it.

Those are the top-level takeaways of a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that explores the economic viability of the American hemp industry as the country transitions to a legal era.

After decades of prohibition due to hemp’s close relationship to its high-THC cannabis cousin marijuana, Congress in 2014 approved state-level pilot programs, allowing growers in certain states to produce and sell hemp as part of limited research initiatives. In 2018, lawmakers went further, ending federal hemp prohibition entirely. Since then, the sector has exploded.

Approved US producer hemp licenses 2014-2018

“Under the pilot programs, United States industrial hemp acreage reported by States increased from zero in 2013 to over 90,000 acres in 2018, the largest U.S. hemp acreage since the 146,200 acres planted in 1943,” the USDA study found. “By December 2019, hemp could be grown legally in every State except Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota.”

As of last year, more than 146,065 acres of planted hemp were reported to the agency.

The 83-page report, “Economic Viability of Industrial Hemp in the United States: A Review of State Pilot Programs,” attempts to draw conclusions about the legal, logistical and economic challenges that might arise as US farmers return to a crop that hasn’t been grown in the country for generations.

One of the biggest obstacles, the study shows, is keeping everyone on the same page.

“There is no systematic comprehensive data source regarding the emerging United States hemp industry or requirement to report a consistent set of data for the pilot programs,” noted the authors, who said they drew on annual reports, website information, internal USDA data, unstructured discussions with state agencies and other third-party information to compile the document.

“States collected data at various times and levels of aggregation,” the study says. “For example, some States report hemp data by intended end use (i.e., grain, fiber, cannabidiol (CBD) or other extracts) while others do not report data.”

US hemp acreage and greenhouses

Inconsistency between state requirements was one of the main obstacles highlighted by the report. USDA found that state-level hemp programs ran into a handful of common problems, starting with the difficulty of passing state-level legislation to regulate the new programs. Other problems arose in obtaining “critical production inputs,” such as seeds and insecticides, or in trying to easily distinguish industrial hemp from high-THC marijuana, which remains federally illegal.

A fundamental problem, the USDA report found, was “lack of basic data and information for decision-making”—something that should come as no surprise to anyone who’s watched a legislative hearing on cannabis.

Getting stakeholders involved early seemed to help smooth some wrinkles, the study found. In some states, authors wrote, “hemp legislation failed repeatedly, typically because of law enforcement concerns or lack of public support.”

“Colorado and Kentucky are two examples of States that included law enforcement stakeholders early when establishing their pilot programs,” the report notes. “This allowed an early basis for dialogue and shared knowledge.”

Data from state pilot programs also led analysts to conclude that while industrial hemp is a burgeoning industry in the U.S., it likely won’t emerge as a strong economic player in every state.

“As with other crops, it is not likely that hemp will be economically viable in every State,” the study concludes. “States that moved quickly to establish pilot programs were not leading producers of competing major field crops,” it found, and “growers are not likely to plant or process hemp if more profitable options exist.

Hemp-producing states could also run into competition internationally, the report says, acknowledging that the U.S. is one of many hemp-producing regions globally. “While the reintroduction of hemp production in the United States is relatively recent,” it says, “hemp production has already been legal in other parts of the world,” including Canada, Europe and China.

Canada hemp production

Under a recent trade deal with the U.S., China agreed to import more American-grown hemp and other agricultural products over the next two years.

For now, the rising tide of interest in hemp-derived CBD appears to be lifting all boats. “Global production was small and relatively stable until the recent worldwide interest in CBD oil,” the USDA study found. “There is some demand for hemp as a sustainable natural fiber, hemp seeds and protein as a food ingredient, and hemp extracts for cosmetics and food, but CBD oil has been the primary source of demand growth.”

Earlier this month, USDA officials said they won’t be able to comply with a request by farmers and some state lawmakers to increase the federal THC limit on industrial hemp, which is currently defined as cannabis that contains no more than 0.3 percent THC. Advocates had asked for that limit to be increased to 1 percent, but the agency said that’s a job for Congress.

They did, however, say that a new public comment period will be opened before hemp rules are finalized.

China Must Import More Hemp From U.S. Under New Trade Deal

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.

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor. He has covered cannabis as a journalist since 2011, most recently as a senior news editor for Leafly.

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State Of Montana Launches Online Hemp Marketplace To Connect Buyers And Sellers

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Say you’re a Montana farmer who has planted acres of industrial hemp. As harvest nears, you’re looking to offload it. Where do you go to find a buyer?

Montana’s Department of Agriculture says it has the answer.

The state this week announced the launch of an online “Hemp Marketplace,” unveiling an online portal meant to connect the hemp farmers with buyers in search of seeds, fiber and derivatives such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

“The Hemp Marketplace concept originated from the same idea as the department’s Hay Hotline,” the Agriculture Department says on its website, “only instead of hay and pasture, the online tool connects buyers and sellers of hemp and hemp derivatives.”

Listings are free of charge.

Montana online Hemp Marketplace screenshot

Montana Department of Agriculture

Montana farmers have embraced industrial hemp since the state legalized its production under a federal pilot program. The first legal crop was planted in 2017, and in recent years the state has led the country in terms of space dedicated to the plant. In 2018, for example, licensed farmers in Montana grew more acreage of hemp than any other U.S. state. While other states have since eclipsed the state’s hemp production—the crop became broadly federally legal through the 2018 Farm Bill—Montana remains an industry leader.

But to make revenue, farmers have to be able to sell their crop. That’s where the new hemp marketplace comes in. The online portal is essentially a sophisticated bulletin board for buyers and sellers, split into “Hemp for Sale” and “Hemp to Buy” categories.

“With hemp being a relatively new crop grown in Montana, the department recognizes that these markets are still developing,” Department of Agriculture Director Ben Thomas said in a statement. “The Hemp Marketplace was designed to help facilitate connections between buyers and sellers. I’m looking forward to seeing how the marketplace will continue to advance the industry.”

Listings include what type of products are on offer (or being sought), whether a given crop is organic and even whether laboratory testing data is available. The portal also organizes products into one of four varieties based on whether the hemp seeds have been certified by regulators. None of the products may contain more than 0.3 percent THC—the upper limit for what qualifies as hemp under both state and federal law.

Meanwhile, Montana voters are set to decide on Tuesday whether the state will legalize hemp’s more infamous cousin, high-THC marijuana. According to a poll released this week, passage looks likely: The survey, conducted by Montana State University at Billings, found that 54 percent of likely voters plan to support legal cannabis on the ballot. Another 38 percent said they were opposed, while 7 percent remained undecided.

At the federal level, officials at the Drug Enforcement Administration are still working to revise rules around marijuana and hemp to reflect Congress’s move to legalize hemp broadly in 2018. While the public comment on the proposals closed earlier this month, nine members of Congress cautioned the agency against adopting its proposed changes, warning some could put hemp producers at risk of criminal liability. Already a number of arrests and seizures have been made by law enforcement officers confused whether products were legal hemp or illicit marijuana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, has faced separate criticism over its own proposed hemp rules, though it has been more proactive in addressing them. Following significant pushback from the industry over certain regulations it views as excessively restrictive, the agency reopened a public comment period, which closed again this month.

USDA is also planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the market.

Montana Marijuana Legalization Ballot Measure Has Solid Lead In New Poll

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.
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Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries

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Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.

N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.

“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”

Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”

Via Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”

The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.

The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.

For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.

Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.

Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.

Another New Jersey Poll Shows Marijuana Legalization Passing By A Huge Margin

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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Illinois Continues Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales Streak, New State Data For September Shows

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For the fifth month in a row, Illinois is again reporting record-breaking marijuana sales, the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced on Monday.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois has seen escalating cannabis sales month-over-month. In September, consumers purchased more than 1.4 million marijuana products worth a total of nearly $67 million. Almost $18 million of those sales came from out-of-state visitors.

In August, the total sales reached about $64 million—the previous monthly record. The new adult-use sales figures don’t include data about purchases made through the state’s medical cannabis program.

This latest data seems to support the notion that the state’s marijuana market is “recession-proof” and “pandemic-proof,” as a top regulator said in August.

Via IDFPR.

State officials have emphasized that while the strong sales trend is positive economic news, they’re primarily interested in using tax revenue to reinvest in communities most impacted by the drug war. Illinois brought in $52 million in cannabis tax revenue in the first six months since retail sales started in January, the state announced in July, 25 percent of which will go toward a social equity program.

“We were not doing this to make as much money as fast as we possibly could,” Toi Hutchinson, senior cannabis advisor to Gov. J.B Pritzker (D), said. “We were actually doing this for people,” with a focus on supporting communities most impacted by the drug war.

In May, the state also announced that it was making available $31.5 million in restorative justice grants funded by marijuana tax revenue.

That said, ensuring an equitable market as promised hasn’t been easy. Regulators have recently faced lawsuits after dozens of would-be social equity licensees were denied an opportunity to participate in a licensing lottery over alleged problems with their applications. The state said it would approve 75, but only 21 ultimately qualified—and critics complain that the resources it takes to submit an acceptable application creates barriers for the exact people the special licenses are supposed to help.

The governor announced last month that new procedures would be implemented allowing rejected applicants to submit corrected forms. But on Monday, three investors who are finalists from the initial round filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that the administration’s decision to permit resubmissions was politically motivated and illegal.

For now, the out-of-state sales data seems to support Pritzker’s prediction during his State of the State address in January that cannabis tourism would bolster the state’s coffers.

Prior to implementation, the pardoned more than 11,000 people with prior marijuana convictions.

Over in Oregon, officials have been witnessing a similar sales trend amid the global health crisis. Data released in August reveals that the state saw about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis sales, marking the third month in a row that sales exceeded $100 million.

Vote For Marijuana Legalization Referendum To Promote Social Justice, New Jersey Governor Says

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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