In late March, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Mike Braun, R-Indiana, introduced the Industrial Hemp Act, a federal bill that aims to remove various regulations surrounding the cultivation of industrial hemp. While representatives of the hemp industry say the bill could help boost production, the proposed legislation also illuminates the obstacles facing industrial hemp as it seeks to distinguish itself from the cannabis and CBD markets.
If enacted, the Industrial Hemp Act would eliminate currently required testing for THC — the primary active compound in marijuana — for the varieties of hemp plants grown for industrial purposes. The bill would also remove currently mandatory background checks for hemp farmers. Industry proponents believe the bill would facilitate expansion of and investment in the industrial hemp industry and help clarify public confusion about the definition and purpose of the crop.
Tester’s office provided Montana Free Press with the senator’s following comment about the bill: “As a third-generation Montana farmer, I know firsthand that one-size-fits-all regulations don’t work for rural America. Montana small business owners I spoke with told me that current policy imposes burdensome red tape on hemp and grain producers by requiring rigorous testing for chemicals that they will not harvest and background checks that do not apply to most other agricultural crops. I took their feedback with me back to Washington and worked across the aisle to find a solution — and I’ll keep fighting until this bipartisan bill becomes law.”
WHAT IS INDUSTRIAL HEMP?
Although hemp shares the same scientific name as marijuana — cannabis sativa — the two crops are distinguished by one big difference: Hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana.
Farmers grow hemp plants either for industrial purposes — to be used as a building material, biofuel, textile or food — or to extract the popular compound CBD, which manufacturers can add into gummies, tinctures, topical creams and more. While the FDA has approved only a single CBD product, manufacturers tout CBD for its calming and soothing properties.The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill legalized the cultivation of hemp for the purpose of CBD extraction.
The Industrial Hemp Act distinguishes between hemp plants grown for industrial purposes and those grown for CBD extraction.
According to Walter Schweitzer, president of the Montana Farmers Union, Montana farmers grew between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of industrial hemp in 2019. But, he estimates, the acreage under cultivation has since dropped to roughly 10,000 acres. That shrinkage reflects national trends as well — the USDA estimates that hemp cultivation acreage fell by 50% between 2021 and 2022 alone.
“I think hemp is an amazing vehicle that can address a lot of the social and environmental problems we have,” Morgan Tweet, the COO of IND Hemp, a large production facility in Fort Benton, told Montana Free Press. “It’s one of the most diverse materials out there, but I don’t think everyone who advocates for hemp understands that it starts at the farm. It’s never going to be at any sort of scale where it can actually make an impact unless we make it easy for the farmer to adopt.”
Tweet estimates that IND contracts with between 100 and 150 industrial hemp farmers, primarily in Montana. (Both the Farmers Union and IND Hemp lobbied for the bill, and Tweet and Schweitzer both say they’ve discussed it with Tester.)
Industrial hemp has myriad commercial applications.
The woody center of hemp plants, mixed with lime, can be used to manufacture a low-emissions concrete alternative known as “hempcrete.” The building material was approved for residential applications in the U.S. last year, but has not yet gone mainstream yet.
“It’s a lighter product. It’s a more environmentally friendly product. It has the same durability, if not more. It’s fire-retardant and has better insulating properties,” Schweitzer noted, adding that processors can also turn hemp oil and hemp fibers into a biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based plastics.
Tweet noted that hemp is additionally both an “amazing carbon sequester, and an extremely nutrient-dense food.”
Hemp can also be used as a biofuel, fabric or textile product, like rope. Tweet told MTFP that hemp fiber — processed for use as animal bedding and “geotextile applications” like insulation mats and erosion control — as well as edible hemp hearts (the squishy center of hemp seeds) rank among his company’s most frequently processed products.
CHALLENGES CREATED BY CURRENT LAW
Tweet said aspiring hemp farmers face a significant obstacle before they even put seeds in the ground: submitting to, and paying for, background checks.
“We’re talking about people who are very unlikely to have a [legal] risk who [have] to drive to the police station and get a fingerprint and get their background check just to grow a crop,” she said.
“That honestly is one of my biggest hurdles as a manufacturer, is convincing guys to do all of these things: Pay a thousand dollars, go get your background checked,” she added.
The Montana Department of Agriculture also performs annual composite testing of individual growers’ hemp plants, and classifies them based on the variety’s likelihood to produce THC.
Mikayla Moore, the hemp program officer at the Montana Department of Agriculture, told MTFP the department currently employs eight inspectors and uses a “risk-based category system” to determine how often to test hemp plots. Varieties that have received certification from the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or that have previously been grown in Montana, are subject to less testing.
Tweet noted that the testing process demands of farmers both time and money.
“You have to facilitate someone coming out to your field. You have to be there with them when they come to sample. So you have to submit that planting paperwork and then you have to submit harvest paperwork at the end of your season. You can’t by law move any material off of your field until you get the OK from the government. And these are people who by and large are not super happy with Big Brother watching over them anyways,” she said.
Tweet, for one, believes the bill could either get a floor vote as a standalone bill, or could find a home in the 2023 Farm Bill, legislation that Congress must renew every five years. The current Farm Bill will expire on Sept. 30, 2023. Congress has begun conducting listening sessions and hearings to help craft the upcoming bill.
“It has merit to be a standalone bill, but we understand it’s challenging in the political environment right now — standalone bills are hard. And so the Farm Bill is kind of a Plan B that we wouldn’t be disappointed in,” she said.
This story was updated Aril 25, 2023, to include post-publication comment from Sen. Jon Tester’s office.
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