Marijuana buds on an American Flag

Hemp has had a rocky past, at least legally in the United States. Forever tied to the stigma of the cannabis plant, it has only recently become recognized on its own as an agricultural product, finally differentiating it from the definition of a controlled substance like marijuana.

What Is Hemp?

Hemp, also known as industrial hemp, is a variety of the cannabis plant species.

What distinguishes it from other varieties of cannabis plants, which are grown for marijuana uses, is the level of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) it contains. Hemp contains the lowest level of THC, coming in at less than 0.3 percent. In essence, hemp is non-intoxicating and will not get you high. In contrast, the THC level in marijuana is over 15 percent.

Uses of Hemp

Besides its level of THC, how hemp is used is another way of distinguishing it from the more intoxicating forms of the cannabis plant family. Hemp products come from every part of the plant, including:

  • Hemp flowers and seeds are used in body care products, nutraceuticals, and other products found in health food stores.
  • Hemp stalks and fibers are used in a wide range of products, including clothing, textiles, paper, and even construction materials.

A Quick Review of Hemp’s Legal History

To understand where we are legally today, a quick review of the legal past is in order.

Marihuana Tax Act of 1937

Up until 1937, hemp remained a prominent agricultural crop in the United States, and its usage in various products was not regulated.

This all began to change with the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. All cannabis plant varieties, regardless of THC content, were lumped together under one cannabis category and strictly regulated.

The Act’s intention focused on levying taxes on all hemp-derived products as well as sales of cannabis products overall. For instance, a farmer who wished to grow hemp and cultivate its fiber for use had to first acquire government tax stamps. Physicians at the time could still prescribe cannabis but would be charged a tax for doing so. Pharmacists also would be charged a tax for selling cannabis.

Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970

It wasn’t until 1970 that the matter was fully addressed again at a Federal level, abolishing the tax approach and officially making all cannabis varieties illegal to grow or possess in the United States.

The Act categorized drugs based on their abuse potential as well as on whether or not they provided proven medical benefits. These categories were established as Schedule I to Schedule 5 drugs, with Schedule I being the most harmful.

All cannabis varieties, including hemp, were deemed Schedule I controlled substances, along with the likes of LSD and heroin. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was thus given regulatory authority over them.

US Farm Bill of 2014

Individual states eventually began taking the issue into their own hands, passing legislation surrounding the growing of hemp in their states for research purposes.

This helped lead to a US Farm Bill of 2014 provision allowing those states with hemp legislation to grow hemp for research and development purposes. This was only allowed by universities and departments of agriculture and only as a pilot program.

The 2014 provision also further defined hemp as a cannabis plant with a THC of 0. 3 percent or less, distinguishing it and marijuana. It still remained under the Schedule I controlled substance designation, however.

Farm Bill of 2018: Hemp Becomes Legal Again, but with Restrictions

With the final passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp has now been heralded in as a legal agricultural crop. The Act doesn’t grant the growing of hemp freely by anyone anywhere, however. Instead, it remains regulated, overseen by both federal and state authorities.

Overview/Highlights of the 2018 Farm Bill concerning Hemp

Here is a quick overview of the Bill as it relates to hemp.

  • Broadens the definition of hemp to include the plant itself as well as any part of the plant (seeds, extracts, cannabinoids, salts, etc.)
  • Removes hemp from the Schedule I classification of illegal drugs under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
  • Classifies hemp as an agricultural product
  • Reconfirms that hemp can only contain 0.3 percent or less levels of THC. Any plant containing higher levels of THC is considered marijuana and is not protected by this Act.
  • Allows for hemp to be grown outside of a state’s university or state agricultural department pilot program. This can only be done if the state in which it is grown creates a plan that includes monitoring and regulating hemp production. The plan will have to include requirements, such as:
    • How it will maintain records of the land the hemp plants are being grown on,
    • Establish test methods to determine the level of THC, and
    • Provide ways to dispose of plants and products that exceed the allowed THC concentration

With the passage of these new hemp regulations, states are stepping up to the plate and enacting their own legislation and presenting their plans for USDA approval. As such, statutes now vary widely from state to state.

As a result, hemp products for sale have grown in number and are expected to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

Hemp has gone from being non-regulated to taxed, to completely illegal, and finally to being redefined as an agricultural product and made legal again – but with restrictions.

Hemp’s legal history is complicated, and more changes may be on the horizon. Lawmakers and farmers are already requesting an increase in the allowable THC level, citing the difficulty to maintain that level, particularly in a drought. So, stay tuned, this isn’t over yet.

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