Politics & Government

‘Hemp prohibition’ is almost over, but you’ll need a license from the state to grow it

The farm bill that Congress has sent to President Trump this week would make it legal to grow hemp in the United States, but that doesn’t mean you can plant some in your backyard this spring.

Hemp has long been prized for its fiber and is the source of the increasingly popular CBD, an oil thought to have medicinal qualities that is used in a host of products. Hemp is also a cannabis plant that looks very much like its cousin, marijuana, and the U.S. government has treated it as an illegal drug for decades.

Now through the farm bill, Congress has moved to legalize the growing of cannabis plants that contain 0.3 percent or less of THC, the compound in marijuana that gives you a high. That compares to THC in marijuana of anywhere from 5 to 25 percent.

The farm bill passed by wide margins in the House and Senate, and several news organizations report that Trump is expected to sign it next week.

The bill is expected to give a boost to a nascent industry of growing and processing hemp. In North Carolina, more than 500 growers are now licensed to cultivate hemp under a two-year-old research program run by the state Department of Agriculture and N.C. State University. Several companies are buying those crops, including Hemp Inc. which claims to have the largest industrial hemp processing facility in the country in Spring Hope, about 35 miles east of Raleigh.

The farm bill would establish hemp as an agricultural commodity and shift its regulation from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But unlike other commodities, such as soybeans or sweet potatoes, farmers would still need a license to grow hemp, and they’ll likely only be available to people with a track record of farming.

Because it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana without a lab test, the growing of hemp plants will continue to be tightly regulated, said Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, a national industry group.

“If it was completely deregulated and it was the Wild West, the fear is people would be cultivating marijuana and say it was hemp,” Miller said in an interview. “I think we all anticipate that someday marijuana will be legal, and when that happens there won’t be a need to license hemp.”

The Industrial Hemp Pilot Program in North Carolina, one of more than two dozen state research programs, would remain in place while the USDA gears up to regulate hemp nationwide. States and tribes would have to seek the USDA’s approval for permanent programs to oversee farmers and test hemp crops.

The North Carolina program already licenses farmers and does spot checks to measure THC, giving the state a head start in winning federal approval, said Blake Butler, the executive director of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Association, an industry group. Butler thinks legalization will ultimately create a boom for hemp in North Carolina, though it’s not clear what the USDA’s approach will look like and how soon a permanent state program will be in place.

“We’ve waited for a long time for industrial hemp to be legal,” he said in an interview. “I think everyone wants to do it right and not rush into it.”

Growing hemp would still pose some risks for farmers, who must worry about THC levels inching above the 0.3 percent legal limit. Under the state’s research program, fields with plants that have tested too high are destroyed.

But the farm bill provides some relief to farmers wishing to grow hemp. As a commodity, hemp would be eligible for crop insurance, which has not been available.

“That’s been really tough,” Butler said. “Especially when we see hurricanes come through like Florence and Michael. They can really wreak havoc on a hemp crop.”

The legalization of hemp also means that banks, credit card companies, advertisers and e-commerce sites would be willing to do business with farmers and producers, according to the U.S. Hemp Roundtable. Like insurers, lenders and other companies have largely avoided the hemp industry, because of its association with marijuana.

“The era of hemp prohibition is over,” Miller wrote on the organization’s website.

The farm bill would give states the power to restrict the growing or selling of hemp, though it’s not clear many would. At least 39 states have already passed legislation that allows the growing of hemp for research or commercial purposes, according to the National Association of State Legislatures.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.