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Federal Officials Give Hemp Legalization Update At Senate Hearing

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The Senate Agriculture Committee heard from federal agencies about efforts to implement the legalization of hemp at a hearing on Thursday.

In the months since the crop and its derivatives were federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, lawmakers and industry stakeholders have made repeated calls to expedite the development of regulations providing for the lawful marketing of hemp products.

The panel requested updates to that end from invited witnesses, which included representatives of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) said the hearing was meant to provide “certainty and predictability for farmers” and that “this developing industry has great opportunity but—to be truthful—also has much uncertainty and risk for farmers.”

“There are complex questions in this space. Is hemp the crop of a generation? What will this industry look like in 10 years?” he said. “I do not know the answers to these questions, and I am not sure if anyone actually can answer them.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the committee’s ranking member, discussed the history of hemp in the United States, calling it a “new, old crop” that is part of a “great American tradition.”

Noting that founding fathers like George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all grew hemp, she joked that “maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda will make his next musical about that,” referring to the “Hamilton” creator.

“We also need to ensure that these new opportunities in hemp production are fair and equitable for all farmers,” she said on a more serious note. “Given the USDA’s troubling history of discrimination, the Department must be proactive to ensure socially-disadvantaged farmers have the same opportunity to get a license to grow hemp. It’s also critical that there is fair testing and enforcement of harvested hemp across the board.”

Witnesses on the first panel at the hearing included USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach, USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner of Food and Drugs Amy Abernethy and EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Assistant Administrator Alexandra Dunn.

The second panel consisted of National Hemp Association Executive Director Erica Stark, Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chairman Darrell Seki and Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish.

Watch the hearing below:

Thursday’s hearing marks the second congressional cannabis-related meeting of the week after the Senate Banking Committee convened on Tuesday to discuss banking issues in the broader marijuana industry.

Even after hemp’s legalization, lawmakers and industry participants have raised concerns about ongoing problems accessing financial services businesses involved with the crop and its derivatives, some of which have said they’ve been denied credit lines and insurance policies due to a lack of guidance from federal regulators. That issue also came into play during Thursday’s hearing.

While few GOP senators attended the week’s earlier marijuana-focused meeting, hemp has garnered strong bipartisan support and this hearing reflected that shared political interest. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been a particularly vocal proponent of the crop, shepherding his hemp legalization provision to passage as part of the large-scale agriculture legislation that was signed by President Donald Trump in December.

McConnell made an appearance and said that he’s “glad” the crop is “making a comeback, and it’s generated incredible excitement all across my state.” He noted that it is being grown in 101 out of 120 counties in Kentucky.

“This product is incredible—from food to clothing to wellness products, what a diversified product,” he said, adding that there are some remaining issues that need to be resolved. Those issues include ensuring that hemp farmers have access to crop insurance and financial services.

McConnell led Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on a tour of a Kentucky hemp farm earlier this month and also met with Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, advising the official to create a pathway for CBD to be lawfully marketed in food items and dietary supplements. Former Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that developing such regulations could take years absent congressional action.

FDA’s Abernethy recognized in her testimony that a multi-year process for rules to be developed “is a long time to wait for regulatory clarity, particularly given the significant public interest in hemp products, and CBD in particular.” FDA said earlier this month that it is speeding up its rulemaking effort for CBD, adding that it plans to issue a status update by early fall.

The official acknowledged that the Farm Bill “unleashed a wave of interest and innovation in hemp agriculture” and stressed “how significant of a policy sea change this has been.”

Abernethy said that “FDA’s approach to cannabis and cannabis derived products, including hemp products, is to treat these products just like we do any other.”

“FDA is committed to advancing hemp products through the Agency’s existing regulatory pathways, and we are further exploring whether it would be appropriate to make additional regulatory pathways available to hemp products such as those containing cannabidiol (CBD). FDA believes taking this approach protects patients and the public health, fosters innovation for safe and appropriate products, and promotes consumer confidence.”

She went on to say that FDA is “wrestling with questions not only about the intrinsic safety of CBD, but also about potentially unsafe manufacturing processes for products containing CBD.”

“FDA knows from CBD products it has tested that they may not contain the amount of CBD indicated on a label, or they may contain other potentially dangerous compounds that are not listed on the label,” she said. “Therefore, FDA must consider questions related to good manufacturing practices for CBD products and potential labeling that might be appropriate for these products to address any potential risks to consumers.”

Further, Abernethy described the complications the agency faces as it considers allowing for the lawful marketing of CBD products in the food supply or as dietary supplements. She suggested FDA would have to create exceptions for hemp under all of its regulations because carving out just one exception could “end up generating additional confusion in the marketplace—a result the Agency believes all stakeholders would prefer to avoid.”

“FDA will only consider creating legal pathways for CBD to be marketed as a dietary supplement or in a food if the Agency is confident that it can develop a framework that addresses safety concerns,” she said.

“Another issue that FDA plans to consider is whether allowing CBD to be marketed as a dietary supplement or in a food will deter clinical research to substantiate additional therapeutic uses for cannabis-derived compounds,” Abernathy added. “Less research into the promise of cannabis-derived compounds and fewer drug approvals in this area would be a significant loss for American patients.”

She also said that confusion generated from the legalization of hemp and its derivatives has led some companies to engage in interstate commerce and that “storefronts and online retailers have flooded the market with these products, many with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims.” Just this week, FDA sent a warning letter to CBD business Curaleaf for selling “unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims,” sending the company’s stock plummeting.

“As this new market emerges, we have seen substantial interest from industry, consumers, and Congress,” she said. “However, in the midst of the excitement and innovation, FDA’s role remains the same: to protect and promote the public health.”

USDA, for its part, initially said that it was aiming to release an interim final rule for hemp in August, but the Department’s Ibach said in his testimony that while officials are “committed to timely establishment of this program,” the rule “is currently undergoing interagency review and we hope to issue regulations in the Fall of 2019 to accommodate the 2020 crop year.”

“Once the regulation is published and becomes effective, [Agriculture Marketing Service] will move quickly to establish the program,” Ibach said. “AMS will begin accepting and reviewing state and tribal plans as well as license applications submitted by individuals who are located in States or territories of Indian Tribes that will not operate their own State or Tribal plan, and who wish to be licensed under the USDA plan.”

EPA’s representative discussed the agency’s role in approving pesticides for hemp plants, saying that officials anticipate that “pesticide registrants will intensify their interest in gaining crop protection approvals for use” on the crop thanks to “strong economic forecasts for hemp production.

“I can report that the agency has recently begun to receive a number of registration requests seeking to add hemp to pesticide labels,” Dunn said. “Currently, there are 10 product registration requests under review at the EPA.”

Dunn also said that the agency is prioritizing and reviewing on an expedited basis requests involving biological and microbial chemicals because they tend to have a low environmental impact.

“I anticipate these will be the first of a group of decisions that will support growers and this new industry,” she said.

An interagency dialogue is underway across EPA, USDA, FDA and the Justice Department, she said. Additionally, EPA is “also in discussions with the Health Canada Pest Management Regulatory Agency about their approved pesticide labels and approaches to regulating hemp.”

During the second panel, Furnish, who was one of the first hemp farmers in Kentucky, talked about the potential of the hemp industry but also the unique risks that cultivators face.

Since the crop is now legal, “we need to take a close look and remove, one by one, the barriers to success so hemp can be on the same production playing field as all the other crops,” he said.

He also brought up part of Dunn’s testimony and emphasized the lack of EPA-approved pesticides for hemp.

“Most folks in the government and even in production agriculture probably don’t know or realize that hemp has no legal pesticide or herbicide or fungicide,” Furnish said. “A grower can lose its entire crop to weeds or pests. Without an approved herbicide or pesticide we may have to pay labor between $500 – $2500 an acre to pull the weeds to keep our hemp crop pure and healthy.”

Echoing a point that his home state senator, McConnell, has made on numerous occasions, he said hemp stands to be an economic benefit to Kentucky as tobacco farming dwindles.
“The labor necessary to successfully plant and harvest hemp is much the same as tobacco,” Furnish said. “That’s why hemp is and can be a great replacement for the dwindling tobacco production.”

“Corn, wheat and soybeans all have hundreds and maybe thousands of product uses. Hemp can too, but they need the barriers removed and the consistency and stabilization which come from the regulatory framework you all can give us. On behalf of the hemp farmers and growers, I’m asking for that help.”

The farmer also cited the lack of crop insurance and uncertainty about whether FDA will allow hemp derivatives in foods and dietary supplements as issues that lawmakers can help address.

Tribal Chairman Seki argued that USDA has left native populations out of the rulemaking process and he implored the department to take a more inclusive approach as it develops regulations for hemp, saying that officials have “frequently mischaracterized the sovereignty of Indian Tribes in the context of industrial hemp regulation under the 2018 Farm Bill.”

“Despite significant progress in the Farm Bill itself for Tribal sovereignty, USDA decisions to delay regulations are threatening to cripple Tribal industrial hemp projects before they can even begin,” he said. “If Tribes had always been on the same footing with states in terms of growing and regulating industrial hemp, this regulatory delay would merely be a source of frustration. Instead it poses a serious threat to competitive Tribal agribusiness.”

“The legalization of industrial hemp production marks a potential landmark economic opportunity for Tribes and Tribal producers through value-added agriculture. Because of this, it is vital that federal policymakers and agency officials negotiate with Tribal leaders, in robust government-to-government consultation, in shaping the federal regulatory structure implementing the industrial hemp provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill. This commitment must be made real from top to bottom at USDA. Otherwise, there is a high risk of this turning into yet another missed opportunity for Indian Country.”

A USDA memo released in May asserted that Indian tribes can engage with states that have approved hemp research programs authorized under the prior 2014 Farm Bill but they can’t authorize such programs themselves. Seki said it reflects a lack of inclusivity that native tribes are grappling with as states continue to move forward on hemp without the same restrictions.

He also decried delays in implementation, saying that “the more the AMS delays, the less time Tribal producers are given to prepare, plan, finance, and plant for the new crop year.”

Stark, of the National Hemp Association, said that the industry is in particular need of clarification when it comes to testing protocols, sampling, personnel eligibility requirements, cross-pollination and the importation of biomass.

“At the very heart of what we need to move forward is simplicity and clarity,” she said. “We need regulations that create an even playing field across the country. We need to eliminate the unintended consequences of legal ‘gray areas’ caused by each state testing differently and operating under a different set of rules and regulations.”

“The hemp industry has been struggling with legal uncertainties for too long and looks forward to reasonable regulations which will afford the opportunity for all to prosper within a clear legal framework,” she said.

While advocates have cast doubts on interest within the Republican-controlled Senate to pursue broader marijuana reform, hemp is one area where lawmakers from both parties have expressed support. And that sentiment was made clear during Thursday’s hearing.

Kentucky GOP Congressman Touts ‘High Hemp IQ’ Of His Constituents

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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.

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

Politics

Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise

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2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.

The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”

Please visit Forbes to read the rest of this piece.

(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)

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Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President

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South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.

Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.

Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”

The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”

Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”

“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”

“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”

“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”

The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”

The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”

Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”

Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”

In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.

“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”

One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.

“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.

The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.

But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.

In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.

“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”

Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”

Elizabeth Warren’s Criminal Justice Plan Involves Legalizing Marijuana And Safe Injection Sites

This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.

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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White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States

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Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.

The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.

Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.

It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.

Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.

Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”

“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”

Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.

During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”

“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”

He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”

Federally Funded Journal Exposes How Marijuana Prohibition Puts Consumers At Risk

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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