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Hemp Hearing in the Senate
On July 25th, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a landmark hearing on hemp production and the 2018 Farm Bill. The hearing began with opening statements from the Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, and special guest Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. All of these Senators took time to talk about the history of hemp farming in the US. The statements were followed by two expert panels and questioning. The hearing was the first dedicated Senate hearing on hemp relating to the implementation in the 2018 Farm Bill. It is especially timely given the recent FDA comment period that just closed, of which my comment is here. Overall there was a lot of great content in the hearing, and I wanted to share a brief overview with a few noted takeaways. You can watch in full on the Senate Agriculture committee website: https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/hearings/hemp-production-and-the-2018-farm-bill
The first panel was comprised of high ranking officials from USDA, EPA, and FDA, including Greg Ibach, an USDA Undersecretary who has been leading the charge for hemp implementation within the USDA, and Dr. Amy Abernethy, Deputy FDA Commissioner and co-chair of the FDA's CBD working group.
The second panel included industry and coalition leaders. Brian Furnish is an 8th generation Kentucky tobacco farmer, who was integral to the legalization of hemp in Kentucky and one of the first licensed hemp farmers in the U.S. He was also the founding president of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, and currently operates a $35 Million hemp processing facility in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Erica Stark is Executive Director of the National Hemp Association, and also Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council. Darrell Seki is the Tribal Chairman of Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, in Minnesota.
With this hearing, hemp has hit a new milestone. Just 24 hours previously, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on cannabis banking, and today, the first full hearing dedicated to hemp production. Congress has cannabis at the top of their desk.
The first panel showed the progress that Agency Administrative offices have made to promote and implement hemp production as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill. The USDA has held webinars and issued guidance through General Counsel, and is currently in the process of inter-agency review for the interim final rule. The USDA has done a great job and is continuing to work to ensure the roll out of this program, to help farmers.
The EPA has held an open meeting about hemp and pesticides - which I attended- because EPA is also a part of hemp implementation. For better or for worse, pesticides are a big part of American agriculture. Farmers rely on pest control, especially as we scale in acreage. EPA is currently reviewing at least ten requests for the use of conventional pesticides on industrial hemp.
Dr. Abernethy, the co-chair of FDA's CBD working group, talked about their May 31 public meeting, as part of their review period that just closed last week, of which my comment is here. Dr. Abernethy mentioned that she is not sure that CBD is completely safe in large doses. Epidiolex, which suggests daily doses in the hundreds and hundreds of milligrams, has shown side effects in some cases. Given her position and lack of research, she is still concerned, somewhat rightly so, about any risks of long term exposure, for example, of taking lots of CBD all day, every day.
The second panel heard hemp pioneer, and personal guest of the Majority Leader, Brian Furnish, talk about the challenges a farmer faces. Hemp CBD production is uniquely similar to tobacco production, while fiber hemp can grow over 22 feet tall. Hemp can be very labor intensive, and not as simple as a get-rich-quick scheme. It's always important to exercise caution, to be wary of 'hemp expert' only in it a few years. Because hemp is so new, there is a lot to learn. I can say that Brian is a true hemp expert having been in the industry since he started working with (now) Congressman James Comer on hemp legalization back in 2012.
Next on the panel was Erica Stark, who talked about the specifics of protocol for testing. She explained that the delta – 9 THC levels in hemp, on a dry weight basis, could be different, based on different testing protocol and post-decarboxylation. Only with solid protocols from USDA, can effective interstate transport be risk-free and legal. Erica, who, along with her husband Les, has been a hemp activist in Pennsylvania for many years. Today, she continues to see past CBD, on the benefits of industrial hemp agriculture for small farms, American manufacturing, and long term sustainability.
Chairman Seki, brought by Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, gave the perspective of the increased challenges faced on Native American Indian land, where they were not specifically included in the Pilot Program from the 2014 Farm Bill. The unemployment rate in Minnesota is around 3%, while on the Red Lake Reservation, close to 40%. Inclusive hemp implementation could be a huge benefit for these communities, if we open the doors for them.
As the hearing went on, different Senators came through, as Senator Boozman (AR) took temporary chair to give time to Senator Hoeven (ND), who as Governor of North Dakota years ago, was one of the earliest hemp supporters. Overall, the hearing was packed with historic support in Congress, hemp expert testimony, and a clear view into how the Federal government is working to assure farmers have all of the opportunity that hemp brings. USDA and FDA are both planning to issue some sort of guidance, however temporary, this Fall. While the public comment period has closed, FDA and USDA are likely still open to data and suggestion for how to implement the hemp program. The full roll-out won't begin until 2019 growing season, and will continue to evolve as the hemp industry, infrastructure, and acreage, grows. Stay tuned for more updates from Washington DC!