Hemp, a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant, has a long history in the United States—much longer than the current craze for cannabidiol (CBD) products. In fact, hemp has not always been used for its CBD component. Rather, it was and still is popularly used in fabrics, shoes, paper, and even insulation.
Hemp is formally defined as the strain of Cannabis sativa that contains no greater than 0.3 percent THC. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. Hemp is commonly cultivated to extract CBD, the other popular compound associated with cannabis. CBD is the non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant and was labelled as having no public health risk or abuse potential by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017.
The recent spark in interest in CBD and the popularity of hemp as a versatile plant in the past few years are the direct result of hemp’s change in legal status in the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the production of hemp products and removed hemp from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances.
How did we get here?
As of the end of 2019, almost 150,000 acres of industrial hemp have been planted in 38 U.S. states. Compare this with only six years prior, in 2013, when there was zero industrial hemp. The last time production was even close to 2019 acreage levels was in 1943, shortly after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and 27 years prior to all cannabis products being classified as Title I controlled substances.
While the 2018 Farm Bill accelerated hemp production nationwide, the earlier 2014 Farm Bill re-introduced the hemp plant to American soil after almost 45 years of no growth. At this time, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced a pilot program for states to grow and cultivate hemp if the state legalized its production first. Between the start of this program and nationwide legalization in the 2018 Farm Bill, over 90,000 acres of hemp were planted. Production continued growing over the next year as more states added hemp to their list of commodities and acreage grew.
The 2018 Farm Bill both legalized and set the regulatory oversight program for hemp, designating the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) as the lead regulatory agency. This program established rules by which designated States and Tribal Nations can submit plans for domestic hemp production. All growers must then be licensed under the State or Tribal plan to begin cultivating hemp. Growers in a state without an approved plan can apply for a license under the federal program instead. In addition, since hemp is now regulated under the USDA, growers can apply for other USDA farm programs, such as crop insurance, revenue protection, farm loans, and others. All hemp growers that were previously part of the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program are now under this new regulation, with the exception that those growers and states do not need to re-apply for licenses.
Hemp cultivation and consumption
Legalization has not been the only driver for the surge in hemp cultivation. Producers can grow hemp in a variety of climates, as evidenced by the fact that it’s currently grown in three-quarters of the U.S. Depending on the anticipated end product, planting and cultivating hemp can vary. If seeds are given less space between each other, the plant will grow tall and fibrous, ideal for the production of textiles and other materials. If given more space, the plants’ flowers and leaves have room to grow, an environment ideal for extracting CBD.
The USDA is responsible for regulating the agricultural side of hemp, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food production and the commerce of consumable hemp products. Since CBD has been increasingly popular in food products, the FDA has rapidly introduced guidance and regulation for these products. The FDA has classified some hemp-seed-derived ingredients as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) and therefore acceptable for use in food products. However, products that have had extracted CBD or THC added directly to them are illegal for interstate commerce. It is therefore important to be vigilant when purchasing CBD-containing products. While hemp in and of itself is safe, many CBD-containing food products may not have undergone testing and approval from the FDA before ending up on the market. Non-food hemp products (blanket, clothing, construction materials, etc.) are also flooding the marketplace, and those do not undergo regulation from the FDA.
As hemp farming expands, so will hemp products
Hemp production is relatively new to modern agriculture. While the growth of industrial hemp is an exciting opportunity for producers and researchers alike, there are a lot of unknowns. Therefore, as consumers, it’s highly important for us to keep up to date with USDA and FDA regulations to understand what is and is not safe in the emerging hemp and CBD food-product marketplace.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.