USDA to Ease Restrictions on Hot Hemp

By: - February 27, 2020 12:00 am

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is easing restrictions on hemp for the 2020 crop year by dropping a new testing requirement and providing some flexibility on how to dispose of “hot” crops.

Cannabis plants with a concentration greater than 0.3% of the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, are  “hot” or illegal marijuana, according to federal law. Plants with a lower concentration are considered hemp, which can be legally sold anywhere.

The change comes after widespread criticism by state agriculture departments and other hemp stakeholders that the interim final rule the department released in October would have made it harder for hemp growers to prove their plants are not marijuana. States were expected to adopt the rule by November.

“Because currently there isn’t sufficient capacity in the United States for the testing and disposal of non-compliant hemp plants, USDA has worked hard to enable flexibility in the requirements in the Interim Final Rule for those issues,” USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach said in a news release Thursday. 

Ibach first announced the shift Wednesday during remarks at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) Winter Policy Conference in Arlington, Virginia.

In a statement responding to news reports, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he was “relieved.”

“This move will help create more job opportunities, will help our farmers and our economy,” said Polis, a Democrat.

The interim final rule has required a law enforcement agency — or a government-approved agent — to sample every hemp field, greenhouse and indoor grow. Those crops also must be tested by a Drug Enforcement Administration-certified lab within 15 days of harvest.

Critics have argued that the turnaround time isn’t feasible and DEA-certified labs are scarce. They’ve also questioned why the DEA is involved.

Ibach told NASDA Wednesday that the DEA will expect states to work with its labs to achieve certification during the 2021 crop cycle.

He also promised more flexibility on how growers can dispose of “hot” crops. “We’re going to provide more options and greater flexibility for states that are working with producers, that need to provide more options for disposal or more commonly accepted ways to destroy that crop on the farm,” Ibach said.

Options include plowing under non-compliant plants and composting, according to the USDA release. 

Last year in the 16 states that shared their data with Stateline, 4,309 acres of hemp out of more than 179,000 acres planted were destroyed because plants tested over the 0.3% limit.

The interim final rule received 4,661 comments. The USDA plans to reopen the formal comment period after the first growing season to capture more feedback, Bruce Summers, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service administrator, said in a teleconference with reporters earlier this month.

“We will use the comments received and lessons learned during the growing season to help us develop the final regulations, which we intend to complete within two years of when this interim final rule was first published,” Summers said.

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.