Editorial: Seeds of confusion

When political polar opposites such as U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) align on the same side, we notice. The issue that draws them close to rapture is hemp.

The upheaval resulting from the disjointed legalization of hemp as an industrial agricultural crop in Maine has put farmers squarely in the middle of incompatible and conflicting state and federal rules and regulations. Pingree, McConnell and Governor Janet Mills are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to keep pace with the social, scientific and market changes around hemp and products derived from hemp, especially cannabidiol oil (CBD).

As we experienced with Maine’s legalization of marijuana, the state’s decision to normalize hemp as a crop collided head-on with federal prohibitions.

Hemp is a brand-new “old” agricultural product in Maine. In 2015, the Maine Legislature rejected a Governor LePage veto and voted to allow planting of hemp for commercial purposes. In 2017, the Canadian firm Future Farm Technology acquired a hemp farm and a year later converted a former frozen-blueberry processor in Belfast to CBD processing in order to establish a base of operation in the United States.

Hemp growing is not legal in many states, but in 2018 the Federal Farm Bill legalized hemp as an agricultural crop for states and tribes to manage. The USDA just released proposed rules governing hemp standards and eligibility for federal programs such as farm loans and crop insurance and the public comment period is now open. Interim rules will be published to address growing, testing, disposal and licensing standards.

However, the farm bill makes clear that the FDA’s jurisdiction over additives in foods, drugs and cosmetics is maintained. The FDA has repeatedly said that CBD cannot go in foods. In January of 2019 Maine health officials ordered stores to remove all CBD foods, tinctures and capsules from their shelves. Two months later, the Legislature passed and Governor Mills signed a new law that gives CBD manufacturers express permission to add cannabidiol oil to foods in direct disobedience of federal law, which bans the addition of CBD into the food supply. The FDA has indicated that it intends to develop new rules and guidelines for CBD-infused vapes and topicals.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry reports this year more than 2,000 acres of hemp is planted and grown in all 16 counties of Maine. The uncertainty from conflicting regulations has serious negative impacts on Maine farmers. One farm lost its insurance policy and bank accounts because of federal uncertainty about hemp.

The hemp saga is typical of the government’s struggle to keep pace with regulating plants as markets change, social norms evolve and lawmakers, with a finger to the wind, reverse longstanding policy without coordinating with the regulators and the regulated.

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