Since 2014, when Congress passed a major Farm Bill allowing states to set their own regulations on hemp production, more than thirty states have said a resounding “yes” to industrial hemp. With all that enthusiasm behind the plant, you might be forgiven for assuming that hemp laws are loud and clear. But you’d be wrong.
Now a new Farm Bill, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, is having its day in Congress. The Senate version of the bill contains a measure that would remove the plant from the list of federally controlled substances and broaden access to farming rights for the people who grow it. The measure has received strong bipartisan backing – and some pretty persuasive voices are leading the charge.
You might know hemp through its illicit association with its mind-altering cousin, marijuana. But the truth is, hemp’s criminal status in America is a relatively new trend. The plant was grown widely on early American farms, due in large part to its sturdy fibers which led to an astonishing array of everyday uses. It was only after hemp’s heavy taxation under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, when it was targeted along with the act’s namesake, that American farmers began to shun the industrious crop.
That association might sound fair at first blush. After all, the two strains, hemp and marijuana, belong to the same plant species, Cannabis sativa L. And admittedly, they do share a family resemblance. But that’s about where the similarities end. The major feature setting hemp apart is the plant’s extremely low levels of one vital ingredient: tetrahydrocannabinol. Better known as THC, this tough-to-pronounce compound happens to be the primary component behind the buzz that gives marijuana its claim to fame.
The allotment of THC found in hemp is so tiny, however, it isn’t likely to put even a lab rat in an altered state. And yet, when the federal Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, it still grouped hemp together with marijuana in the hardest class: Schedule I. That move cemented hemp’s illicit status at the federal level. And it meant growing or possessing hemp could land you with serious charges, no matter your state.
Mild-mannered hemp’s federal classification as a Schedule I drug placed it among the ranks of some seriously dangerous substances, like heroin and MDMA. And for several decades, this hardline stance on hemp remained the law of the land. In the 1990s, a few states enacted or pursued legislation to allow the production of industrial hemp, but their impacts were negligible and few crops were planted.
Then, in 2014, members of Congress succeeded in passing a pro-hemp proposal–Section 7606–as part of that year’s omnibus Farm Bill. That measure allowed states to authorize a narrow range of hemp cultivation activities within their borders, ushering in a new era in American hemp. After spending decades deferring to federal leaders on hemp laws, states suddenly found themselves in the driver seat.
If the 2014 Farm Bill didn’t quite throw the door wide for legalized hemp, it did nudge it open to allow states to enter the space and look around. By 2015, seven states–Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon and Tennessee–had already passed legislation and put plants in the ground. With more states jumping at the chance in 2016, the U.S. hemp crop shot up from 3,933 acres grown to nearly ten thousand in a single year.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, at least forty states have passed legislation to explore or hemp production, while at least thirty-eight now allow for hemp cultivation on some scale. Hemp plants are now being grown on more than 25,000 acres in at least nineteen states. And many of those states are already exploring some unique uses for the hemp they produce:
|State||Hemp Cultivation for Research||Hemp-derived CBD||Marijuana-derived CBD for medical use||Marijuana-derived CBD for general use||Medical Marijuana||Recreational Marijuana|
|Connecticut||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|Georgia||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|Kansas||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal|
|Louisiana||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal|
|Mississippi||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|Missouri||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|New Hampshire||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|New Jersey||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|New Mexico||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|New York||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|North Carolina||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|North Dakota||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|Ohio||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|Oklahoma||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|Rhode Island||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal||Illegal|
|South Carolina||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|South Dakota||Not Permitted||Legal||Unclear||Unclear||Illegal||Illegal|
|Texas||Not Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Illegal||Illegal|
|West Virginia||Permitted||Legal||Conditionally Legal||Illegal||Legal*||Illegal|
|*Washington, D.C.||Not Permitted||Legal||Legal||Legal||Legal||Illegal|
First off, the 2014 Farm Bill did nothing to change hemp’s inclusion on the controlled substances list. As it stands, hemp remains a Schedule 1 drug – and if you grow or possess it outside the bounds of activities authorized in your state, you could still be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Unfortunately, Section 7606 failed to clear up a few things about how federal laws applied to the new state programs.
In 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a joint “Statement of Principles” clarifying their take on Section 7606. But many hemp proponents are critical of that stance and want the DEA out of the picture altogether; and it appears Congress might be listening. New pro-hemp proposals are being considered as part of 2018’s big agricultural bill. Those proposals were first introduced by the influential Republican Senator Mitch McConnell – who, as the Majority Leader in the Senate, is now perhaps the most powerful champion for hemp reform.
Both houses of Congress have passed their own version of the Farm Bill, but only the Senate version contains the hemp proposals. In a strong bipartisan showing for hemp, the Senate passed their bill in June by a vote of 86-11. Now with conferees from both chambers gearing up to hash out the fate of a compromise bill, don’t be surprised to see senators from both sides of the aisle fighting hard to keep hemp in this new Farm Bill.
Right now, a lot of that depends on how the Farm Bill plays out in committee. With the majority leader appointing himself a Senate conferee, you can be sure Senator McConnell will make a hard push to include his hemp proposals.
Beyond that, who knows what’s next for American hemp? The Trump Administration has shown a lukewarm attitude toward the plant so far. Any bill passed by Congress would, of course, face the test of the President’s veto. But domestic hemp is well on its way to becoming a billion-dollar industry. Broad grassroots and political support for the plant is growing. And with hemp’s distinctive profile again cropping up in farmers’ fields from sea to shining sea, it’s hard to see how an American economy fighting to keep its competitive edge can ignore hemp’s potential for much longer.
*This chart is intended as a general overview of state-by-state hemp and CBD laws. If you have specific questions about the legality of hemp or hemp products in your area, consult your state’s agriculture department or the USDA.