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States waiting on hemp rules from USDA to start planting

CHEYENNE — While the federal government paved the way for industrial hemp production in the 2018 Farm Bill, states still need direction on how the nascent industry will be regulated before seeds can go into the ground.

Once hemp was legalized by the federal government, Wyoming’s Legislature took the step to legalize industrial hemp production during this year’s general session. House Bill 171, sponsored by Rep. Bunky Loucks, R-Casper, allows for hemp to be grown in the state, along with the production and sale of hemp-based products, including ones containing CBD oil.

Loucks said the intention of the bill is for Wyoming to have supremacy over regulating the hemp industry here. But the state still needs to have its plan approved by the United States Department of Agriculture.

“The state ag department is working now, and has been for quite some time, on our own rules and regulations. And they have the authority to stand up whatever regime they think is best,” Loucks said. “They’re really good at what they do, and I believe they’re going to come out with a great framework for us.

“But we want an answer from the feds as soon as possible, and we’re not the only state sitting in this situation.”

The USDA is currently gathering comments from stakeholders as they seek to craft a federal framework to help guide states. During a Wednesday teleconference with states and industry members, representatives of the agency said the goal would be to have a regulatory system in place this year.

But there are a bevy of issues to work out before those rules are created, including how to test hemp for THC content and how to ensure the safe transportation across state lines.

HB 171 set the limit for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, at 0.3 percent. That’s the same limit included in last year’s federal Farm Bill, which declassified hemp as a Schedule One drug and allowed for industrial production.

Multiple industry experts and growers commented to the USDA on Wednesday that a uniform way of testing THC levels was one of the key elements for industry success. Too often, hemp farmers now find THC levels for the same crop can vary depending on which laboratory is conducting the test.

Josh Egle, owner of High Altitude Hemp, said THC levels aren’t much of a concern when growing hemp for industrial uses like fiber and feed. But for those growing hemp for the oils to make CBD, it’s a much more delicate process to ensure the plants’ THC content doesn’t rise above the 0.3 percent threshold.

Egle currently runs his company in Colorado but is in the process of opening a hemp business on his family’s homestead in Albin. He said one of the vital components of any regulatory framework in Wyoming is for growers to have access to state testing facilities.

“It’s important to allow farmers access to the same machines that the state uses. In the cannabis industry, what we see is there’s variance, especially when you’re dealing with such a small number of 0.3 percent, from lab to lab,” Egle said.

The ability for farmers to send in samples of their crops for testing by the state throughout the process would be vital to ensure crops are harvested before they reach the THC limit, Egle said.

The time and conditions under which the tests are conducted are another concern for the industry. The further along in the plant’s life cycle the tests are conducted, the higher the likelihood the test will show a higher THC content. And a heavy rain could also temporarily boost the THC levels in the plant.

Multiple participants in Wednesday’s USDA call asked the agency to come up with rules surrounding testing to ensure farmers face the same standards across the country.

Transporting hemp was another major concern for the hemp industry. Even though the Farm Bill legalized the transportation of hemp across state lines, there have been several major instances of shipments being impounded in states without legalized hemp production. A representative of the transportation industry asked the USDA to include a piece in its regulations to help distinguish industrial hemp from its illicit cousin, marijuana.

Hemp and marijuana are very similar plants, and by sight and smell it could be hard for a police officer in the field to distinguish between the two. Also, many roadside test kits used by law enforcement only test for the presence of THC, not the actual level of the chemical.

Loucks and Egle both said they believed with time and education, those instances of hemp shipments being confused for marijuana should diminish.

“It’s a learning curve,” Egle said. “We just need to get education out there to make sure authorities across the country knows hemp is a legal product.”

Egle said as soon as a regulatory framework is in place in Wyoming, he and many others are ready to start putting seeds in the ground in time for the 2020 growing season.

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