With the massive piece of legislation set to expire in September, lawmakers and advocates look to the 2023 version to help clean up issues facing the industry.
The 2018 Farm Bill was a transformative milestone in the young but eventful history of hemp in the United States. According to NPR, 80% of the $428 billion spending behemoth goes to fund nutrition programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The five-year bill also helps shape rural development and what crops American farmers cultivate.
However, the 2018 iteration, while predominantly addressing those same issues, is most infamous for its legalization of a crop most Americans know very little about - hemp. What makes the situation more ironic is that hemp is as much a part of American History as the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War.
The rugged and versatile plant was integral to colonial America's development during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to the Daily Beast, colonists used hemp to craft rope, sails, clothing and a host of other essential items. In fact, prior to the Revolutionary War, colonies were legally required to grow the crop and send it back to England. It was so ubiquitous and valuable that it eventually became utilized as currency and a method to pay taxes. Hemp paper was even used to draft an early version of the Declaration of Independence.
By the 19th century, along with its industrial uses, hemp's value expanded to include significant health and wellness properties. However, because hemp is part of the same plant (cannabis sativa) that produces marijuana, the two became inextricably and erroneously linked. As a result, by the mid-20th century, anti-cannabis sentiments fueled by propaganda prompted Congress to pass the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, effectively making marijuana and its sister hemp plant illegal.
With that one piece of legislation, a massive agricultural, industrial and health and wellness resource became dormant for almost a century until Congress inexplicably decided to reverse course via the Farm Bill of 2018. Amidst the ever-growing list of states legalizing adult-use cannabis or establishing medical marijuana programs, a movement among Republican and Democratic lawmakers to re-establish hemp as a legal crop for struggling farmers saw an opportunity via the Farm Bill.
With the passage of that measure, hemp cultivation and, more importantly, all hemp-derived products became legal in the U.S. again. However, as mjbizdaily reports, the unintended consequences of that legalization effort have prompted many industry critics, lawmakers and stakeholders to seek solutions through the exact legislative vehicle that legalized the mercurial plant in the first place.
When the Farm Bill legalized hemp and hemp products, many lawmakers had no real idea about the flood of complex and potentially deadly offerings it would produce. Consequently, creative and inventive entrepreneurs began crafting a host of items containing completely legal forms of delta-9 THC (the most well-known intoxicating THC variant) and other less-known cannabinoids like the now infamous delta-8 THC.
According to the bill's language, any part of the cannabis sativa plant containing less than 0.3% delta-9 THC is legal to cultivate, and all products derived from that portion of the plant are legal as well. At the time, politicians had little scientific knowledge about the plant and its capacity. Five years later, state legislatures, regulatory agencies and healthcare advocates have begun calling for action against some of these very legal but potentially dangerous offshoots from hemp.
Joan Wilson, Alaska's top cannabis regulator, and Robert T. Carter, the state's hemp-plan manager, wrote in an October letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, "Impairing, high-potency delta-9 hemp products are in the Alaska marketplace. They are accessible to all Alaskans, including our youth."
"Impairing, high-potency delta-9 hemp products are in the Alaska marketplace. They are accessible to all Alaskans, including our youth."
- Joan Wilson, AK Top Cannabis Regulator, and Robert Carter, AK Hemp-plan Mgr.
To date, 14 states have passed laws banning the delta-8 THC isomer. In addition, the DEA recently issued a statement clarifying that since the synthetically derived delta-8 and -9 THC-O acetates do not occur naturally in the hemp plant, they are not considered hemp and are, therefore, illegal. Many industry stakeholders and advocates see the 2023 Farm Bill as a chance to clean up and clarify the issues laid bare by the "wild, wild, west" conditions created under the 2018 version.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, views the 2023 bill as the perfect opportunity to correct those past mistakes. In a recent interview, he shared, "We had a breakthrough in the 2018 Farm Bill, but it didn't provide a regulatory framework (for intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids). There are real problems. That is recognized. So I think that coming in and filling these gaps is something that shouldn't be hopelessly controversial."
"We had a breakthrough in the 2018 Farm Bill, but it didn't provide a regulatory framework (for intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids). There are real problems. That is recognized. So I think that coming in and filling these gaps is something that shouldn't be hopelessly controversial."
- U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR-D)
Along with providing more precise guidelines governing intoxicating hemp-derived cannabinoids, hemp advocates believe the new bill could also help reduce waste. One way to accomplish that goal would be to increase the allowable delta-9 THC content from 0.3% to 1% before a legal hemp plant becomes an illegal marijuana plant under federal law.
As Jim Higdon, a co-founder of Kentucky-based Cornbread Hemp, a company that markets CBD products, explains, "That will make farming cannabinoid hemp much more forgiving. The amount of hemp that has to be destroyed is just ridiculous."
"That will make farming cannabinoid hemp much more forgiving. The amount of hemp that has to be destroyed is just ridiculous."
- Jim Higdon, Co-founder of Kentucky-based Cornbread Hemp
However, the 2023 Farm Bill could do much more than curtail glaring issues in the hemp industry. Many lawmakers, like Rep. Blumenauer, also see the measure as a means to assist those working for overall marijuana reform. Some of those issues include cannabis banking reform, rescheduling efforts, expanded research and even an end to marijuana prohibition at the federal level.
The current state of affairs in the hemp sector is a prime example of letting the political cart lead the horse. The desire to correct the wrong decisions of the past created a well-intentioned action to bring the multi-faceted and versatile hemp plant back to its much-deserved prominence as a quality cash crop for farmers.
However, a lack of scientific understanding and due diligence on the part of lawmakers led to this crossroads, where a more thorough and detailed revision of the Farm Bill will be necessary to fill the gaps and shore up the integrity of the law. Hopefully, version 2.0 will be the much-needed "fix" for the hemp quandary and marijuana reform.