What does legalizing industrial hemp mean?

Legalizing the production of industrial hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill has caused much confusion, and stakeholders are working to understand and identify solutions to aid the growth of this new market. The Organic Farmers Association is following the progress of this matter to help our members navigate these emerging organic markets.

The 2018 Farm Bill changed federal policy regarding industrial hemp by removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and redefining it as an agricultural product. The bill legalized hemp under certain restrictions and expanded the definition of industrial hemp from the last Farm Bill in 2014. The bill also allowed states and tribes to submit a plan and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp in their state or tribal territory. A state plan is required to be submitted to the federal government to document their testing methods and how they plan to keep track of land and dispose of the plants or products that exceed the allowed THC concentration. At least 47 states have enacted legislation to establish industrial hemp cultivation and production programs.

Before we discuss the current state of industrial hemp, let’s answer some common questions and points of confusion you might be having. Marijuana and industrial hemp are different varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L., which both include the natural compounds cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is why marijuana and industrial hemp look the same. Legalized industrial hemp is defined as varieties containing no more than 0.3 percent THC. Any variety with a THC level higher than 0.3 percent is considered marijuana, not industrial hemp.

Industrial hemp varieties are typically cultivated for three distinct markets: fiber, seed, and CBD oil.  Commodity varieties are typically grown on a larger scale for fiber and/or seed and can be a good option for an organic field crop rotation. Fiber varieties are typically planted in dense stands to maximize stalk production, while varieties grown for seed and/or fiber are spaced farther apart to encourage branching and seed production. Industrial hemp grown for extraction of CBD oil is typically a different type of production style and scale—one that is more aligned with specialty crops and similar to the management of marijuana varieties. These hemp varieties are typically cultivated for certain concentrations of CBD oils and other natural compounds and are sold to farmers as feminized seeds.  The flower buds are cultivated from these plants for CBD extraction and, thus, are grown in a lower density to maximize branching.

Like industrial hemp varieties grown for CBD, marijuana varieties are also grown for their leaves and flower bud and, therefore, are grown under low-density conditions to maximize branching. The in-field production of feminized plants for industrial hemp and marijuana is similar; yet, the end-products are different and regulated under separate federal and state laws. Marijuana and THC are on the list of controlled substances and are prohibited under federal law; thus, these substances cannot be certified organic nor can they be legally grown in every state.  Eleven states have legalized recreational marijuana use and 33 others have legalized medical marijuana, and these states require restrictive permits for growing. Because marijuana is not legal in every state and because of the growing permits, the legalization of industrial hemp complicates the ability of regulators to monitor the two crops because they look alike and are managed similarly in the field.

When Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing industrial hemp, they required a nationwide THC testing standard so that state and local regulators can distinguish hemp from marijuana in order to regulate its production. This requirement has complicated the USDA’s release of standardized production rules as it has proven challenging to find a reliable, standardized THC test that will work across the nation. Part of the concern with the test is that it will detect THC but those levels are indistinguishable from other beneficial and legal cannabinoids in the plant. The USDA has expressed their commitment in finding a solution that will support growers and interstate commerce for this new industry. While the USDA has not given a timeline for finishing this work, they do still hope to have the rules finalized by the 2020 growing season.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also involved in these regulation conversations following the 2018 Farm Bill, as they need to identify how CBD is defined, controlled, and used.  In June 2018, FDA approved Trusted Source Epidiolex, the first prescription medication to contain isolated CBD, for difficult-to-control forms of epilepsy. Outside of the FDA-approved drug review, full-spectrum CBD (oils that include CBD as well as other cannabinoids and elements of the hemp plant, including naturally-occurring terpenes, essential vitamins, fatty acids, protein, etc.) is used as a supplement to aid other conditions such as follows: seizures, inflammation, pain, mental disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, nausea, migraines, depression, and anxiety. THC is used to help with pain, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety. FDA is still trying to define CBD’s approved use and their role in the production rules.

To further complicate the discussions among growers, processors, and regulators, a few states with legalized marijuana production are exploring “organic” certification programs for medical and/or recreational marijuana. California and Washington State are leading the way on creating state “organic” certification programs for marijuana, which are expected to be released later this year. Marijuana cannot be labeled as organic, though, until it is legalized at the federal level, because the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) controls use of the word “organic.” Currently, both of these states are including hydroponics production since both California and Washington State have large industrial interests in organic hydroponic production. Hydroponic production of marijuana offers more control growers of inputs to the plants and restricts cross pollination with industrial hemp. These states are working on developing standards that the industry can brand and promote as utilizing production practices that mirror NOP standards. With that being said, as of right now, they are using this definition and set of standards when growing industrial hemp, though they are still works in progress.