Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently introduced S.2667, a bill which would allow states and tribes to regulate hemp production. The proposed law is appropriately titled the “Hemp Farming Act of 2018” (the “Act”). As the Senate Majority Leader, McConnell is one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, so it goes without saying that this is a big deal. In addition, the Act is being fast-tracked through the Senate, bypassing the standard committee review process.
The Act is currently in draft form and the details are subject to change. As written, “hemp” would be defined as:
the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-0 [THC] concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”
This proposed definition is significant, because it specifically includes the term “extracts”, thereby undermining the DEA’s much-maligned “marihuana extract” rule, which broadly defines any extract from the cannabis plant as “marijuana” and not hemp. The proposed “hemp” definition also includes “cannabinoids” contained in hemp which could add much needed legal certainty to the already booming CBD market. The Act would also explicitly remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act’s definition of marijuana.
The authority to regulate legal hemp would be placed in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One major issue with the current federal “Industrial Hemp” program is that the 2014 Farm Bill, which established the program, does not name a federal agency to oversee it. Feel free to debate whether government regulations help or hurt an industry, but at least this bill provides some guidance as to who is responsible for the program.
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Speaking of the 2014 Farm Bill, the Act would repeal and replace the “Industrial Hemp” section of that the 2014 Farm Bill one year after Act is passed into law. The 2014 Farm Bill allows states to enact pilot programs for hemp research making hemp legal within the state’s borders. Hemp cultivated in compliance with a State’s program is expressly legal under the Farm Bill. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other federal agencies have issued a joint Statement of Principles claiming that the commercial sale and/or the interstate transfer of Industrial Hemp is outside the scope of the Farm Bill and therefore unlawful. However, Congress has limited the DEA’s ability to use federal funds “to prohibit the transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp” grown in accordance with the 2014 Farm Bill.
Ultimately, the Act would require that states and tribes submit a plan to the US Department of Agriculture in order to cultivate hemp. The plan must include details on how to track the land where hemp is produced, a procedure for testing the THC concentration in hemp, a procedure for disposing of products that are not in compliance, and procedures for enforcing the Act. The Act would also allow hemp researchers to apply for grants from the and make hemp farmers eligible for crop insurance.
McConnell introduced the Act in the Senate on April 12, 2018, and it was co-sponsored by Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. That same day saw Representatives James Comer of Kentucky introduce companion bill H.R. 5485 in the House of Representatives with and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado co-sponsoring.
McConnell hails from Kentucky and it’s no surprise that lawmakers from Kentucky, Oregon, and Colorado would support hemp legalization. In 2014, we predicted Kentucky would lead the nation in industrial hemp as it was one of the first states to implement a hemp cultivation program under the 2014 Farm Bill. Kentucky was also one of the first states to legally obtain hemp seeds after it stepped up to fight the DEA in federal court in order to obtain those seeds. Since then, farmers in Kentucky have been happily producing hemp as a replacement for tobacco crops. McConnell and Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles highlighted Kentucky’s hemp program in announcing the Act:
McConnell: Hemp has played a foundational role in Kentucky’s agricultural heritage, and I believe that it can be an important part of our future. I am grateful to join our Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles in this effort. He and his predecessor, Jamie Comer, have been real champions for the research and development of industrial hemp in the Commonwealth. The work of Commissioner Quarles here in Kentucky has become a nationwide example for the right way to cultivate hemp. I am proud to stand here with him today, because I believe that we are ready to take the next step and build upon the successes we’ve seen with Kentucky’s hemp pilot program.
Quarles: Here in Kentucky, we have built the best Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program in the country and have established a model for how other states can do the same with buy-in from growers, processors, and law enforcement. I want to thank Leader McConnell for introducing this legislation which allows us to harness the economic viability of this crop and presents the best opportunity to put hemp on a path to commercialization.”
In addition to Kentucky’s leadership on hemp, Oregon has reconfigured its hemp program and is a national bellwether in this space. Oregon hemp growers and handlers are able to sell their products to state-licensed marijuana businesses (as well as anyone else in the country). The merger of Oregon’s hemp and marijuana markets is unique and other states will likely follow suit, especially if the Act becomes law. Finally, Colorado has more acreage dedicated to hemp cultivation than any other state at present.
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As mentioned above, it appears that McConnell is flexing his considerable political muscle to get this bill fast-tracked through Senate. McConnell is using procedural Rule 14 which allows a bill to skip over the committee process so that legislation may be brought up on the Senate floor. This doesn’t guarantee that the Hemp Farming Act will get a vote, but it does indicate that McConnell means business.
Daniel Shortt is an attorney at Harris Bricken, a law firm with lawyers in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Beijing. This story was originally published on the Canna Law Blog.