A congressional panel held a hearing on Thursday that touched on a good range of hemp issues, with lawmakers and witnesses, including two state agriculture commissioners and industry representatives, highlighting reforms they might like to see made as part of the 2023 Farm Bill.
The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research has jurisdiction over areas of specific, limited hemp policy matters.
Still, members took the chance to discuss broader issues such as proposals to allow the marketing of products containing derivatives like CBD, increase the THC limit for legal crops, and eliminate Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lab testing requirements.
Hemp was federally legalized as a part of the 2018 Farm Bill. Still, while that bipartisan achievement was welcome news for advocates and industry stakeholders, opening up what’s become an enormous market in the U.S., many have acknowledged challenges with implementing the current law by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that they assert can be fixed with future legislative reforms.
“While markets for hemp products like fiber, grain, and flower are developing, they’re still volatile and uncertain,” Chair Stacey Plaskett said in her opening remarks. “To support farmers and producers within the ongoing development of this emerging sector, it’s crucial that USDA still work to support and expand hemp production and the hemp industry.”
“As we glance towards the next Farm Bill, we will continue to address ongoing issues and provide our farmers, producers, processors, and agricultural researchers with the resources they have,” she said.
Ranking Member Jim Baird said, “while we are bound to hear about successes in the hemp industry, it’s important to notice that we have many challenges.” He also said it might have been useful to have representatives of USDA and FDA present at the hearing and expressed hope that federal officials would appear before the panel.
Rep. Glenn Thompson, the ranking member of the complete Agriculture Committee, echoed that latter point, expressing frustration that USDA and FDA were “missing in action” at the hearing despite their central role in hemp regulatory matters.
The subcommittee announced last week that it might hold a hemp-related hearing, though the initial notice offered little detail about what members would be specifically discussing.
The conversation that unfolded largely focused on policies incorporated into the 2023 Farm Bill.
Another key area of interest for stakeholders is the marketing of hemp-derived CBD, but that might likely fall under the jurisdiction of a different committee dealing with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Kate Greenberg, the commissioner of the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), said that hemp “has the potential to make new economic opportunities for farmers who are dealing with a changing climate and increasingly arid land.”
“Our young farmers and ranchers are constantly seeking new ways to support their bottom line and the environment simultaneously,” she said. “The hemp industry has the potential to advance CDA’s priorities if we hear our producers and implement sensible regulations.”
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She said those priorities include lowering hemp sampling and testing fees, removing background check barriers, and ending “duplicative” acreage reporting rules.
The top regulator at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) said that, like other states, Kentucky “observed a rapid expansion of acreages from 2015 through 2019, followed by an equally rapid decline beginning with the 2020 season .”
“One reason for this decline was that production within the previous years, particularly the 2019 season, far outpaced demand,” KDA Commissioner Ryan Quarles said in his testimony.
“Many farmers ended that year with a hemp harvest that there was no buyer, even those that started the year with a signed contract. There remains a surplus of harvested hemp from that year.”
Quarles also made policy recommendations to the panel, including removing the DEA lab testing requirement for hemp and increasing the lawful THC limit for the crop from 0.3 percent THC by dry weight to at least one percent.
But while widespread support for raising the THC limit, the commissioner recommended that each THC isomer be included in that analysis, including delta-8 THC. That proposal could prove controversial for some stakeholders, as market demand for the intoxicating cannabinoid synthesized from hemp-derived CBD has boomed in recent years.
Marcus Grignon, executive of Hempstead Project Heart and a tribal representative, also made recommendations to the panel that he said would “strengthen the hemp production provisions from the 2018 bill .”
“Bank regulations need revision to ease current restrictions for hemp operations. It’s difficult to find a bank that will take business accounts connected to hemp production and processing, not to mention insurance companies,” he said, adding that “there must be a USDA stamp of approval for hemp being shipped between the various jurisdictions in the United States. This may help with any issues that arise with interstate commerce.”
The chairman of the complete Agriculture Committee, Rep. David Scott (D-GA), said in February that he felt the subsequent iteration of the Farm Bill should go even further than hemp and include provisions dealing with marijuana—specifically policies to remove the cannabis industry barriers for Black entrepreneurs and small businesses.
For her part, subcommittee member Rep. Chellie Pingree filed a bill titled the “Hemp Advancement Act” in February to supply hemp businesses with additional regulatory flexibility that stakeholders have been seeking.
The measure, which she has said is meant to start a discussion on reforms in anticipation of the next Farm Bill, would further remove a controversial ban on hemp market participation by people with prior drug convictions.
Pingree said at the hearing that hemp is “a promising crop,” but “we have an extended way to go before we’ve smoothed out all the issues.”
She emphasized the necessity to remove the DEA lab testing requirements, lift the 10-year ban on hemp industry participation by people with drug-related felony convictions and lift the THC limit for hemp.
Further, the congresswoman said that the background check requirement that mandates fingerprinting is onerous, particularly in states with significant rural communities like Maine, where there are only one post office processing fingerprints.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a March report outlining various components of the 2018 bill and made recommendations for future policy considerations, including those handling hemp.
For instance, the paper noted stakeholder feedback about revising the federal definition of hemp by increasing the allowable THC limit.
CRS also said that Congress should consider industry complaints about the ongoing absence of FDA regulations to market hemp-derived CBD products in the food supply and possibly take steps to address the problem.
KDA’s commissioner said plainly, “if you were to inquire from me what the biggest issue facing hemp is today, it might be the lack of direction from the FDA.”
Eric Wang, CEO of Ecofibre, testified on behalf of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, said, “farmers aren’t the only ones who are being negatively impacted by this regulatory uncertainty.”
“Consumers also are impacted,” he said. Bad actors are selling products without appropriate safeguards and misleading consumers with false label claims.”
Meanwhile, House Appropriations Committee leaders recently released spending legislation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that involves multiagency coordination to create guidance on hemp manufacturing and also recommends that the department work with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to resolve concerns about enforcement actions for so-called “hot hemp” that exceeds the 0.3 percent THC limit during extract processing.
USDA released the results of an enormous, first-ever federal survey on the hemp industry in February, providing a “benchmark” analysis of the economic impact of the burgeoning market.
At a top level, the department’s survey found that the hemp market’s value reached $824 million in 2021, with about 54,200 acres grown across the country.
Back in Congress, Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Morgan Griffith (R-VA) filed a bill earlier this year to allow hemp and CBD derived from the crop to be marketed and sold as dietary supplements.
In the Senate, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced legislation that might similarly exempt “hemp, hemp-derived cannabidiol, or a substance containing the other ingredient derived from hemp” from certain restrictions that have blocked the emergence of legal consumable hemp products while the FDA has slow-walked regulations.
Paul also filed a separate measure last year that might triple the concentration of THC that hemp could legally contain while addressing other concerns the industry has expressed about the federal regulations.
This hearing on hemp comes two days after the House approved a bipartisan cannabis research bill and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee convened for a first-of-its-kind hearing on federal marijuana reform.
A newly introduced Senate cannabis legalization bill would even have implications for the hemp industry. However, there are serious doubts about whether the measure has enough support to succeed in the 60-vote threshold in the chamber.