US hemp farming held back by strict THC regulations

The 2018 Farm Bill breathed life into the US American farmer by finally re-legalising hemp as a cash crop after 80 years of prohibition based on economic motivations but justified by stigma and racism.

But while no one is asking for a free for all, many believe the stigma of hemp’s link with cannabis has influenced regulations that are still too strict.

“For a lot of rural communities, this is an opportunity for new jobs,” Grant Smith of the Drug Policy Alliance tells Roll Call. But he says too many lawmakers and policymakers “still don’t see them [hemp and marijuana] as different. They see the similarities.”

Chris Thorne, a board member of the Hemp Federation of America (HFA), a recently formed trade group, is of the same view. “They are trying to define hemp through the lens of marijuana. It’s all about continuing the prohibition on marijuana as a controlled substance as opposed to expanding the opportunity to grow and produce industrial hemp.”

Under United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules, farmers risk seeing their harvest destroyed if tests show more than 0.3% of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on a dry weight basis.

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There is some flexibility, with labs allowed to establish a measure of uncertainty, or margin of error, for the results. But the USDA requires that tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), which is chemically different from THC, be counted toward the total THC level. And it wants plants tested 15 days before harvest.

The HFA is pushing for an alternative to destroying hemp fields when THC content is above 0.3%, calling for the plants to instead be used for compost, construction material, fibre for clothing and other applications that do not require people to smoke or consume the hemp. A sensible suggestion in terms of both creating new industries and fighting the plastic and environmental crises.

Chris Fontes, though, CEO of Hemp Exchange, said the USDA should have set the THC level at 1%, still be well below marijuana, which can have THC levels of up to 30%. The 0.3% limit means that flowers that have high concentrations of THCA and cannabinol, or CBD, which has a very small psychoactive content, will cause farmers much anxiety.

He points out that by moving the testing closer to harvest, the USDA is going to get higher THC readings because the levels are known to rise as the plant matures.

Three violations of the 0.3% limit in five years could see a farmer banned from growing hemp for five years.

The 2018 farm bill also places a 10-year ban on anyone with a felony drug conviction from growing hemp, which will disproportionately affect people of colour. 

It seems that as long as cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, hemp farmers and the hemp industry in general will be held back. Instead of limiting their fight to concessions, hemp farmers should surely get behind the growing efforts to make that happen – with several Democrat Party presidential front runners, under pressure from activists, promising to legalise cannabis federally if they get into power.

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