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Hemp Has Always Been Legal in the United States

The federal government never outlawed hemp. 

This statement likely contradicts what you may have thought, and it certainly contradicts headlines that claimed the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp. It did not. Headlines that came closer to reality said the bill legalized the production of hemp, though technically it didn’t do that either. 

So what did it do? The legislation made it easier for farmers to grow hemp by removing it from the controlled substances list. 

Of course, many argued that hemp shouldn’t be — or actually wasn’t — on the list at all. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) included exclusions for industrial hemp, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals actually ruled in 2004 that hemp was not a controlled substance. Unfortunately, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) oversaw hemp production in part due to a poorly worded definition of cannabis, a genus of flowering plants that includes hemp, and the agency seemed to exhibit anti-hemp bias and an intent to sow confusion about its legality.

This, in large part, is why so many people thought hemp was illegal. That’s never been the case, and as more people realize that hemp is legal, they also realize the profound impact that hemp is already having on health, wellness, beauty and the environment. This sparked demand, and Congress sought to resolve the situation by having the 2018 Farm Bill officially remove hemp from the controlled substances list.

Leading up to the bill, a 2014 congressional report summarized the situation this way: “Strictly speaking, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 does not make growing hemp illegal; rather, it places strict controls on the production of hemp, making it illegal to grow the crop without a DEA permit…. Most reports indicate that the DEA has not granted any current licenses to grow hemp, even for research purposes.”

Rather than “legalizing” an already legal crop, the Farm Bill jumpstarted domestic production by freeing it from the bureaucratic black hole that entrapped it for decades, during which time American companies had to resort to importing hemp. Thanks to a resurgence in the plant’s popularity, products made with imported hemp have been widely available for decades, from the Hemp Hearts sold at Trader Joe’s to hemp-based fashion sold by brands like Patagonia

The 2014 congressional report also cited a long list of products being made with imported hemp: “Both finished hemp products and raw material inputs are imported and sold for use in manufacturing for a wide range of product categories. Hemp fibers are used in a wide range of products, including fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibers, paper, carpeting, home furnishings, construction and insulation materials, auto parts, and composites. Hurds are used in various applications such as animal bedding, material inputs, papermaking, and composites. Hemp seed and oilcake are used in a range of foods and beverages, and can be an alternative food protein source. Oil from the crushed hemp seed is used as an ingredient in a range of body-care products and nutritional supplements. Hemp seed is also used for industrial oils, cosmetics and personal care products, and pharmaceuticals, among other composites. Some estimate that the global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products.”

By moving hemp from the purview of the DEA to the Department of Agriculture, the Farm Bill allows U.S. companies to stop sending money overseas for imported hemp and to start making these 25,000+ products at home with American-grown hemp. Farmers can now grow the crop with a license from a state or USDA hemp program, and this helped the United States become the world’s third-largest producer one year after the law passed. 

Like all crops, the production of hemp is subject to regulations. For example, the hemp plants cannot contain more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This limit naturally applies to any products made with these plants. Cannabidiol (CBD), though not psychoactive, is found in the flowers and leaves, and the government currently restricts some CBD use as it develops a regulatory framework through ongoing clinical studies. Subject to far fewer regulations, hemp stalk and seeds have always been the most widely used parts of the plant, and hemp seeds in particular have become a wildly popular ingredient in everything from luxury beauty products to health-conscious meals. 

All crops are regulated in one way or another. Regulating a crop or product does not make it illegal, but rather, it proves its legality. An outright ban on a product eliminates the need for regulations.

Hemp was regulated, never banned, and the Farm Bill simply removed the bureaucracy keeping American farmers on the sidelines as hemp rapidly becomes a global phenomenon.

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