In mid-March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held a listening session to gather public opinion on the implementation of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the Farm Bill. The focus of this session was on new provisions related to the production and regulation of industrial hemp.

The speakers represented a wide variety of related parties and included: representatives from state-level agriculture, regulatory and law enforcement agencies; private sector business owners and entrepreneurs; Native American tribal leaders; and other industry advocates and stakeholders.

The diversity of speakers represented a broad view of issues and concerns related to the expansion of hemp cultivation. In the following we examine a number of recurrent themes raised by speakers, which illustrate concerns regarding the future of industrial hemp production in the US.

Drawing a Line Between Hemp and Cannabis

Hemp and “consumable cannabis” (adult-use or medicinal cannabis) are the same plant, and are only distinguished by the level of THC. Per the Farm Bill’s definition, industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, in contrast to “cannabis,” which can contain up to 20% THC. To sight and smell, the two are indistinguishable, which places a great amount of importance on testing measures for THC.

A recurring issue, raised by both regulatory and law enforcement officials and hemp cultivators and advocates, is the lack of universal testing measures. Officials expressed concern that it was incredibly difficult to test THC content via roadside stops or in customs examinations. This results in delays to traffic and other processes and can lead to unlawful detainment and seizures. On the commercial side, hemp producers don’t want to see their legal shipments delayed or seized.

Speakers from all sides of the issue agreed that for the hemp industry to move forward, the USDA will need to define consistent testing measures and help provide training to officials tasked with regulating the cultivation and transportation of hemp.

Treating Hemp as a Viable Agricultural Commodity

The Farm Bill removed industrial hemp (as defined previously) from the Federal Controlled Substances Act, in effect decriminalizing hemp production. And yet, many advocates brought up concerns related to provisions in the Farm Bill that they felt continued to treat hemp as a scheduled drug.

For example, the Farm Bill requires license applications prior to cultivating hemp, which leads to background checks for the licensees. No other commercial crop requires diligent background checks, and subsequent application and processing fees.

Similarly, the Farm Bill did not eliminate the requirement under the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act wherein the importation of hemp seeds requires registration with the DEA. Industrial hemp has a strong history of cultivation in other parts of the world, including Canada and Europe, and the agricultural science and genomics of hemp in these regions are far ahead of the US. Access to advanced genetics in hemp crops is essential to commercial production and the DEA requirement presents a major roadblock to free trade.

These are just two examples of ways in which the specter of hemp’s past as a controlled substance continues to linger. Asking the USDA and other federal agencies to go all the way with decriminalizing every aspect of hemp motivated commentary across a number of regulatory and operational concerns.

Access to Banking for Hemp Producers

Like any other agribusiness, hemp businesses need access to lines of credit, insurance, and other traditional banking relationships. And yet, like the cannabis banking crisis, a number of hemp cultivators expressed concern related to the reluctance of financial institutions to work with them.

Representatives of financial institutions, including banks and credit unions, also made their voice heard, asking for clear protection against liability so they would feel able to serve hemp producers. Both parties concurred in requesting that the USDA make a clear pronunciation regarding access to banking for hemp producers.

While the SAFE Act has made progress in recent months, there are no guarantees about access to banking for all cannabis businesses. In the meantime, the industrial hemp industry seeks clear and strong direction at the federal level to ease the path to traditional banking.

Lack of Clarity for Native American Communities

A number of Native American communities and leaders were given an opportunity to speak during the listening session and all shared enthusiasm about the potential economic benefits of hemp cultivation on tribal land. And yet, many pointed to a lack of clarity regarding regulation and self-governance for tribal communities in the 2018 Farm Bill.

For example, the management of much tribal land is a complex web of oversight from federal agencies combined with the autonomous control of tribal governments. A number of Native American leaders asked for further guidance regarding hemp production from the USDA so tribal nations can participate in upcoming planting seasons.

Balancing Federal and State Regulations

The 2014 Farm Bill carried provisions allowing for the creation of hemp-growing pilot programs at the state level. The successful inclusion of hemp production in the 2018 bill owes much to the success of these pilot programs. During the listening session a number of representatives from state agricultural agencies raised their voices to speak to the success of their programs and to support a continued balance between federal and state oversight.

Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Colorado all provided details on the growth of hemp in their respective states and made the case that future USDA laws should not interfere with state’s rights in the matter of hemp. At the same time, they acknowledged the essential role in federal oversight protecting and ensuring factors that include: intrastate commerce, managing import/export laws and enforcement, and the implementation of standardized testing protocols.

Next Steps for Industrial Hemp in the US

The above topics were a sample of the diverse range of issues and concerns that remain undefined under the current wording of the 2018 Farm Bill. In coming months, each state and tribal nation will have the opportunity to submit a regulatory system governing hemp production in their respective jurisdictions. Those proposals will then be reviewed and approved by the USDA.

The USDA also seeks to implement a regulatory system that addresses these concerns, and more, which is scheduled for release in fall of 2019. If all goes well, hemp producers across the nation will have clear guidance to move forward as early as 2020.