US Farm Bill to Greenlight Hemp Research

US Farm Bill

The US Farm Bill passed Wednesday, January 29th by a 251-166 vote in the US House of Representatives. The overdue bill contains nearly $1 trillion in spending and will be in effect for 5 years. The Senate is expected to vote on this bill on Monday, February 3rd.

The Bill’s big-ticket items include production subsidies, insurance, country of origins labeling, and food stamp programs. What one would expect. But significantly, the Bill also includes provisions for the cultivation of industrial hemp for research purposes.

Hemp remains controversial to many interests in the USA, but the passage of research provision — Section 7606 — was probably helped because the main points of contention were elsewhere. A desire to get a new Farm Bill finally passed played into hemp’s favor. After all, it’s just research, a small boat bobbing in the big sea, and it doesn’t cost the USDA anything.

Hemp in the Blue Grass

Having the blue-chip support of Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky helped. “By giving states the go-ahead to cultivate hemp for pilot programs, we are laying the groundwork for a new commodity market,” said McConnell. The Senator’s leadership came about because of strong, persistent advocacy back home in Kentucky, as well as the initial efforts by members of the House of Representatives.

Reports say that getting hemp research included in the Farm Bill took considerable effort. Arriving at the appropriate language took finesse, which McConnell maintained would avoid any negative impact to current law enforcement efforts at marijuana interdiction.

How does it work? Who can grow?

The new legislation allows colleges, universities, and state agriculture departments to grow hemp. Because of a notwithstanding clause, this research is not to subject to the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) or the oversight of the DEA. Federal hemp licenses would not be required.

Because of this crucial detail, universities and state agriculture departments would be able to import viable hemp seed capable of germination, which is otherwise prohibited under the CSA. They will not be required to have onerous, Kafkaesque controls such as armed guards or chain link fences or 24-hour lighting. Grim men in dark suits will stop by only as tourists.

Conceivably farmers could grow hemp, as farmer co-operators with researchers running point. But large-scale commercial production will have to wait. The nitty gritty details — like potential crop size — will depend on each state.

And Where?

The research provision only applies in states that have passed hemp farming laws and have developed rules to register and certify planting sites for research purposes.

According to lobby group Vote Hemp eligible states at the moment include California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia. Washington State, despite passing a decriminalization measure regarding cannabis with a definition of hemp, is not yet eligible as they have yet to develop state hemp farming legislation.

But that could change. And at least eleven more states could potentially pass commercial hemp legislation over 2014. Again, the Farm Bill does not empower any of those acts but does create an opportunity for states to get in the game now and create new laws that would be in accordance with Section 7606. And of course, states with research legislation already on the books would be allowed to grow hemp. They are ready to go.

First Steps, Sprouting Seeds

In modern times a single hemp research license was granted to Hawaii by the federal DEA. The Hawaii hemp research project, run by plant breeder Dr. Dave West, ran between 1999-2003. Subsequent requests by other states have not met with any success.

This is not commercial yet production but an important preparation. Modern research is crucial to the successful development of a homegrown American hemp industry. With this bill in place, for the next five years, cultivars can be tested, and best choices can be identified. Breeding programs can begin. Fertilizer and planting rates can be explored. Crop rotations can be evaluated. Harvesting hurdles and challenges can be identified; technical and handling solutions can be worked towards. Farmers and processors can look at storage, processing and logistics and start pilot marketing projects. There are many useful angles.

Research allows the creation of real world, relevant, modern, referenceable data to be established and will help with the long-term goal of getting hemp grown on American soil again. As we know big crops come from small seeds.

Most importantly, the research bill gives many skilled people a chance to work firsthand with the crop legally. That personal professional development is the most valuable aspect and this investment in the American hemp brain trust will have the most future returns.

Five years — time to make the best of it!