BY DOUG FINE
Hemp, one of humanity’s longest cultivated plants, is back in a huge way. That’s thanks to a provision in the 2018 federal Farm Bill. As a hemp farmer-entrepreneur, this thrills me: it’s almost planting season again. Last year (my fourth season), the soil provided a terrific harvest (including food for my family and goats), and, like thousands of fellow hemp farmers, my next batch of product is processed.
In total, American hemp farmers planted 300,000 acres in 2019, up from zero in 2012, according to the advocacy group VoteHemp. One of my own crops is certified organic, which is a satisfying federal designation to receive for a crop that was a Schedule 1 felony just a half decade ago.
Suddenly, hemp is the most impactful economic development since Silicon Valley. It crossed the billion-dollar annual revenue mark in 2018. But what makes me the most excited if that most of these acres are cultivated outdoors, sequestering carbon and, as the industry grows, playing a significant role in humanity’s effort to mitigate climate change.
Not to mention hemp farmers are producing healthy products, such as the superfood that derives from the seed part of the hemp plant (my family has eaten its omega-balanced hemp hearts today, as usual), and the benefits many folks are receiving from CBD and other cannabinoids (which derive from the female hemp flower.)
So what’s the problem? Shocker alert: government regulations. We need some simple and immediate revision in a key area, and that is the THC definition of hemp.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis/hemp, and in small levels (such as, say, three or four percent or less) it’s not an issue, when it comes to either psychoactivity or some kind of fantasy about diversion to a ganja market. But the current definition of hemp, which is cannabis with 0.3 (that’s point three) percent or less THC, is an absurdly low number that was admitted chosen “arbitrarily” by the Canadian researchers who proposed it in 1976.
Now, I’m not a panicky guy in general, but when between twenty percent (the nationwide average) to more than fifty percent (in some states) of hemp farmers test “hot,” meaning their crop, when tested for THC, comes in slightly above that current 0.3 percent level, well, that’s not a farmer-friendly way to launch an industry.
I have multiple friends and colleagues who have lost their entire crop over minute levels of THC that were within the testing equipment’s margin of error, including my colleagues at the family-owned Salt Creek Hemp in 2018. In my own crops in 2019, the same seed tested at 0.25 percent in one state (pass) and at 0.52 in another (no pass).
THC levels in hemp/cannabis flowers can vary of the course of a single day, and even the choice of testing equipment can have an effect.
The urgent, immediate effort is therefore on, among hemp farmers nationwide, to raise the federally defined THC level to one percent. That would allow 90 percent of hemp crops to pass their THC tests, and has absolutely no down side.
Since hemp’s 0.3 percent definition is in federal law, this requires a legislative change (as in Congress). The farmer outcry on the one percent issue has resonated so loudly (I’ve personally heard from farmers in Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Kentucky, Colorado, North Dakota, Minnesota, Hawaii, Alaska and Louisiana) that multiple U.S. Senators expressed willingness to include the new definition in a budget bill last December.
That didn’t happen, but the administrator of Vermont’s hemp program, Cary Giguere, who is also of my hemp farming partners, said it could happen any time this year, and it’s up to us to make the necessary noise. But he added that even as Congress fixes the THC definition, we must also ensure that some key changes are made to the USDA’s hemp regulations. When hemp was removed from the Justice Department’s controlled substances list and moved back to the farming arena where it belongs, we all suddenly found ourselves in a “be careful what you wish for” situation.
Which is to say, Giguere took one look at the initial proposed USDA regulations for hemp that came out late last year and called them “unacceptable” on several fronts. When I waded through the 162-page doc, I saw immediately how right he is. There are a number of key areas that must change in these interim final rules, and the best thing that can be said about them is they allow state hemp programs to operate under the previous, 2014 hemp farm bill “pilot” provision for one more year (the 2020 season).
But the most egregious non-starter in the USDA interim final rules is a provision that states THC tests higher than 0.5 percent can be referred for criminal investigation. That alone should send the folks at the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (the department tasked with issuing hemp rules) back to the drawing board — especially with all forms of cannabis being legalized federally at any moment.
Oregon already allows export of psychoactive cannabis – and we’re somehow still punishing farmers about micro levels in hemp? Obviously, with a federal definition of hemp at one percent, this 0.5 percent criminalization provision becomes moot. It should be totally removed (to allow states to determine negligent THC levels), but most farmers with who I speak could live with a decimal point move to the right: a crop testing at between one and five percent might have to be composted or provided to dispensaries, but there is no criminal risk to farmers.
The other key components of last year’s USDA interim final hemp rules that must be changed immediately include, 1) a provision that forces farmers to harvest within 15 days of a THC test (that should be at least 45 days, but really it should be a state by state decision), and 2) a provision that all farmers across the land must conduct their THC test at a DEA approved lab. Sorry. The DEA is out of the hemp business. Time to work on real problems, like the opioid crises.
Raising the THC definition to one percent is terrific, and it’s an important first step in helping ensure that independent farmers, including those on small acreage, are the key players in this new, lucrative, climate-balancing industry.
The next step, what we might call the end game, is total THC irrelevance until the retail level. Here’s why this is important: Hemp plants want to contain THC – the plant has evolved to use it for predator defense and other purposes, and denying it stresses a plant. Its presence can increase plant performance.
Farmers famously can cultivate hemp for what Popular Mechanics called, in 1938, “25,000 uses.” Some, such as fiber apps (feedstock for regenerative homes, paper, vehicles and even supercapacitors), might perform better if higher THC (which will never be smoked) is in the flower. There is functionally no THC in the fiber.
All THC burden should thus be off farmers in the field, and on to the processing phase, where final product goes to market. Already today, when a hemp flower is processed by most common modes (like cold ethanol processing), say, toward a final CBD tincture, all cannabinoids, even THC, are concentrated. A “crude” paste emerges from processing that might contain seven percent THC. No one cares when this happens in a processing facility, and indeed no one should care, because the THC level is diluted before a product heads to customers. Therefore, the last folks we should be burdening on THC are farmers.
THC should never matter for any cannabis/hemp plant unless a flower (and only a flower, not a fiber or seed product) above a state-determined THC level is destined for the retail market. In that case, of course, the product might be regulated for adult or medicinal use. Otherwise, it’s time to unleash farmers to grow this plant in the digital age with no more restrictions than if we were cultivating tomatoes. Our rural economies and our climate depend on it.
And with your help and mine, it will happen. Given the overwhelming chorus from farmers across the land on the immediate one percent THC issue, we can work toward all of our goals with some confidence. And since Congress has been so friendly to hemp in recent years, I’ll predict success and end on a positive from the field: No one I know is cowed by the early hemp hurdles. Personally, I and my family will be out preparing our soil with mycelium and our goats’ organic manure this week, confident that these changes will be made, and the industry will launch in a manner maximally friendly to independent regenerative farmers.
Doug Fine is a solar-powered goat and hemp rancher in New Mexico. He is the author of the bestsellers Hemp Bound and Farewell, My Subaru. His forthcoming book, American Hemp Farmer. His website is dougfine.com and on social media he’s at @organiccowboy.