The Global Debate Over Defining Hemp Heats Up

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What, exactly, is hemp? Across the globe, it is used to manufacture a wide range of products, including textiles, paper, cosmetics, construction materials, auto parts, and even biofuel. Indeed, dozens of countries actively participate in the international hemp industry, and a handful of others are preparing to partake. 

However, despite the widespread production, distribution, and use of “hemp” —generally understood as Cannabis sativa L. with low levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound associated with the high—there is no international consensus surrounding the term. 

Which raises a significant question: In terms of THC, how low is low enough? The answer varies. 

The 0.3 percent threshold 

Following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp in the United States is defined as Cannabis sativa L. with a THC concentration that does not exceed 0.3 percent. (For comparison, buds sold for medical or adult use contain anywhere from 10% THC to 20% THC, on average.) Canada, like the United States, defines “industrial hemp” as cannabis that contains 0.3 percent THC or less and does not distinguish between CBD derived from industrial hemp and CBD derived from cannabis with greater than 0.3 percent THC.

As the global hemp industry continues to expand, the 0.3 percent threshold is becoming more prevalent. Down in Costa Rica, for example, a legislator recently proposed a bill that’s aligned with Canada and the United States. 

The 0.2 percent threshold  

Elsewhere, particularly in Europe, the threshold is slightly lower. Spain and Croatia, for instance, both define hemp as Cannabis sativa L. whose content does not exceed  0.2 percent THC. 

Until 2018, Denmark had a total ban on THC-containing products, aside from those used for medical and scientific purposes. Today, hemp is defined as cannabis that contains no more than 0.2 percent THC. This policy change enables companies to manufacture, import, and trade “non-medical cannabis products” with low THC content, including, “for example, foods such as hemp beer or cakes with hemp.” Still, as in the United States, the rule change in Denmark “does not mean that CBD-containing products will automatically become supplements.” If products contain CBD, they must be assessed by the Danish Medicines Agency to determine if they are drugs. And if that is found to be the case, those products cannot be sold without permission from the agency. “In principle,” says the agency, “it should be assumed that the vast majority of CBD-containing products remain pharmaceuticals.” 

The 0.5 – 1 percent threshold 

In other parts of the world, the THC threshold can be much higher. Paraguay, for instance, defines hemp as “non psychoactive” cannabis that contains less than 0.5 percent THC, “in line with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.” 

Uruguay, on the other hand, defines “non-psychoactive cannabis (hemp)” as cannabis that does not exceed one percent THC.  This is slightly different from Colombia, where “non-psychoactive cannabis” refers to that which contains less than one percent THC

What do international authorities have to say?

Interestingly, even though Paraguay’s decree states that its THC limit for hemp is rooted in guidelines set by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, the agency is actually still working on establishing a threshold. 

Back in 2009, the Office issued a manual titled “Recommended methods for the identification and analysis of cannabis and cannabis products.” In it, the agency says that “Industrial cannabis is characterized by low THC content and high cannabidiol (CBD) content,” but it does not establish a THC limit. Rather, the UN Office simply notes that though the legal limit for cultivation is 0.2 percent “In most European countries,” it is 0.3 percent in Canada. 

Last month, the UN’s Member States (sovereign nations that have equal representation in the UN General Assembly) had the opportunity to consult the matter with international regulators, including UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, and the International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors enforcement drug treaties. Ahead of the meeting on September 23, the agencies released a compilation of questions and answers relating to the World Health Organization’s recommendations on cannabis and cannabis-related substances, which, among other things, state that “Preparations containing predominantly cannabidiol and not more than 0.2% of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are not under international control.” The document, which gathers comments as well as concerns, offers a window into the discussions between nations and signals that the question of a THC threshold for hemp remains unsettled. 

In an updated version of the document, Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which is in the process of crafting new cannabis policy, all questioned how the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence arrived at the proposed 0.2 percent threshold. The United States also underscored that countries that already “cultivate cannabis for hemp purposes, industrial purposes” have established thresholds “that are not at 0.2%; some are above AND some are below, and the above go up as high as 1%.” Canada then asked the international regulators if they consider the proposed threshold to be appropriate under all circumstances, before going on to suggest that international regulators leave the THC limit up to Member States to decide—an idea the United States also supported. 

In response, the World Health Organization wrote that it will “continue to work in close collaboration with Member States,” as well as UNODC and the International Narcotics Control Board, “to address the questions, concerns, and comments expressed by [the] countries,” noting that they have received “several questions regarding the production of cannabis, its industrial uses as hemp, and its use in food products.”

As for questions regarding the origin of the proposed 0.2 percent THC limit, the World Health Organization indicated that it is meant to ensure that Epidiolex, which has been approved in the United States, is “exempted from control.”

According to the World Health Organization, “That medication has a THC content not greater than 0.15% by weight as a proportion of the total weight of plant material.” However, because a “chemical analysis of ∆9-THC to an accuracy of 0.15% may be difficult for some Member States,” a slightly higher 0.2 percent limit was adopted instead. 

According to international regulators, “even for a maximum adult dose of CBD, the level of THC (max. 0.2%) will be below the level that would produce significant effects.”

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