USDA Lays Out the Latest on Hemp

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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a progress update on Wednesday regarding its rule-making surrounding hemp production. The department outlined all the steps it has taken to draw up rules and regulations since the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally legalized hemp, was signed into law in December. In addition to holding public hearings, it has issued public notices to provide guidance related to hemp production, seed imports, and transportation. 

“America’s farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers depend on the certainty and availability of USDA’s programs and assistance. That is why we are working diligently to implement the 2018 Farm Bill with efficiency and accuracy,” US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “We have listened to our stakeholders and consulted with our customers. As we continue to implement the Farm Bill, USDA is committed to focusing on responsiveness and putting our customers first.”

In their most recent notice, for example, the department made clear that once final hemp regulations are published, which the USDA hopes will be in time for the 2020 growing season, states and Indian tribes cannot prohibit people or companies from transporting lawfully produced hemp across their borders. Until then, interstate transportation of industrial hemp still poses a legal risk as states that have not legalized hemp could arrest drivers for trying to transport hemp across the border. 

In Idaho, for example, a truck driver transporting industrial hemp from Oregon to Colorado for Big Sky Scientific, LLC, was arrested in January for drug possession. Law enforcement also does not have a way to distinguish between hemp and marijuana on the field and needs to take the product to a testing lab.  

The same notice also bars people with state or federal felony convictions from producing hemp for a 10-year period. However, people who were already legally growing hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill before December 20, 2018, and were also convicted before that date, will be exempt from the ban. (This guideline is particularly controversial as it excludes people affected by the war on drugs, through which law enforcement has disproportionately targeted communities of color.)

Breeders of new varieties of hemp seeds and tubers can now apply for plant variety protection, according to one of the notices. The Plant Variety Protection Act provides intellectual property protection to breeders, previously unavailable when hemp was still on the Controlled Substances Act. 

USDA has also allowed hemp seeds to be imported from Canada and other countries without a DEA permit since hemp is no longer a controlled substance. The seeds need to be accompanied by a “phytosanitary certificate” from the exporting country’s national plant protection organization to ensure that the seeds do not contain pests or other forms of contamination. 

The department also clarified that universities and tribes can continue following the 2014 Farm Bill’s hemp production rules for 12 months after the regulations to implement the hemp provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill are published. 

Yesterday’s update comes the same week the USDA announced that a final interim rule on the domestic hemp production program will be published in August. 

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