Adhering to the national 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) threshold has posed challenges to U.S. hemp growers as the industry works to gain its sea legs after the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill) federally legalized hemp. The THC limit has also been a source of contention among farmers and state departments of agriculture that are working to help bolster hemp farming in their states. And as the Nov. 1 deadline approaches for states to adhere to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) interim final rule (IFR) for regulating the legal U.S. hemp landscape, the issue is becoming more pressing.
The IFR imposes a testing requirement for “total potential delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol content, derived from the sum of the THC and THCA content.” In other words, hemp crops must be tested for levels of both delta-9 THC (the primary intoxicating compound in cannabis) and THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, the non-psychoactive acid form of THC found in the plant when raw). Many existing state programs require testing only for delta-9 THC. Requiring total THC testing tends to increase THC concentration test results, further elevating the challenges of meeting the already stringent 0.3% THC threshold.
Many public comments on the IFR voiced concerns regarding the 0.3% THC limit. Now, industry advocacy organization Vote Hemp has launched a petition it plans to share with Congress, hoping to push legislators to change the legal definition of hemp to containing 1% THC.
Here, Noelle Skodzinski, editorial director of Hemp Grower and Cannabis Business Times magazines, interviews Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra about the organization’s efforts to increase the THC threshold, the likelihood of the limit being raised and more.
Noelle Skodzinski: What's driving Vote Hemp to increase the legal THC limits?
Eric Steenstra: We've been doing advocacy around bringing back hemp as a commercial crop for 20 years—this is actually our 20th anniversary. And the farmer was always sort of at the center of that, and seeing American farmers be able to grow this crop again was really critical.
Unfortunately, anytime you have a political process, there's always compromise. And we knew that the 0.3% THC was an outdated and artificially low definition for hemp, but it was the best we could achieve in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills.
It just wasn't the political will to go further. We tried. We actually worked with Representative [James] Comer from Kentucky, who introduced a version of the bill in 2018 that had up to 0.6% THC for research, at our request. … We know now that the USDA has come out with its interim final rule (IFR) and has made a really strict definition, something that they actually came up with … total THC, that’s not in the Farm Bill. And it's just made it really tough, and we've heard a lot of farmers are getting hurt. If you planted the crop with the best of intentions and then it comes out one-tenth or two-tenths over the over the limit, it’s illegal.
It’s not like they're suddenly growing a high-THC marijuana crop, right? It's just a minor amount over. … And we really felt it was important to begin working to get that changed. So, we started out with a petition. We figured that's a great place to start to demonstrate that there is strong support for this. I know there are other groups that are also on board with this; we've talked with the Farm Bureau [American Farm Bureau Federation], and they [support up to] 1% THC, and the National Farmers Union has a policy that advocates for an even higher level [3%].
There's a definite consensus out there in the industry that this is something that's got to change. That's why we started the petition and are trying to lead the advocacy for it.
“I think there's a really good chance that we can get it changed. The question is, ‘How long is it going to take?’” - Eric Steenstra, Vote Hemp
NS: How many signatures does the petition have?
ES: We have 6,000 signatures [as of Aug. 11], and we are still going to be pushing hard. I'd love to see us get tens of thousands of signatures and I'm hoping we'll get there.
NS: What do you think the chances are of the THC limit changing?
ES: I think there's a really good chance that we can get it changed. The question is, “How long is it going to take?” And “When's the appropriate time?”—because it was put into the farm bill, that may be a challenge.
But there's something else I'm working on as well. We're trying to see if we could get Congress—either through the stimulus bill that's being negotiated right now or through an upcoming bill that might be coming later in like September, October—to put something in that would extend the 2014 [Farm Bill], which a lot of people operated under and as of right now is set to expire at the end of October. So we're hoping that in the meantime we might be able to extend that as a sort of a stopgap measure just to provide some relief for farmers.
NS: And that would help because that doesn't mandate testing for the total THC limit as per the USDA’s interim final rule? It lets those states that chose to continue under the 2014 regulations continue to operate that way, which is just testing for delta-9 THC levels.
ES: Right. It's not fixed for everybody, unfortunately, because some states were doing it and some weren't. But we're just trying to look at any way we can to help improve the situation for farmers.
NS: What are the key obstacles you see that have prevented or could continue to prevent a higher THC limit from being passed?
ES: When hemp was first considered by members of Congress, there were a significant number of members that were not in support of marijuana or marijuana legalization—for example, Senator [Mitch] McConnell—and they had a very conservative approach to [hemp legalization]. And they thought that because other countries had done this, [they should take a similar approach]; historically, Canada had a 0.3% THC limit, and the Europeans originally had a 0.3% limit, which later got lower, down to 0.2%, which is just crazy.
But those, of course, are markets where hemp was being grown for fiber and for grain only—there was no cannabinoid production. So that limit was a little bit more attainable with those markets. But when you're growing to try to maximize the cannabinoid content, it's very difficult to do that without having the THC levels creep up from there.
NS: Aside from signing the petition, is there anything else industry stakeholders can do to help the cause if they're in favor of increasing the legal THC limits?
ES: There’s a few things that always help. One thing I recommend is that people sign up for our newsletter because we do provide updates, including action alert opportunities. So, if something comes up where there's an opportunity for people to take action on it, they would get a notice about that from the email.
And, of course, financial support for the effort is always, always helpful. We're a nonprofit, we depend on donations and support from the industry.
NS: What else is important to mention?
ES: Well, there are other issues that are important for the industry. We do have an action alert right now about a bill pending in Congress that will help to try to get the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] regulating CBD properly. Obviously, those are the kinds of things that will be helpful for farmers because we've got sort of handcuffs on the market right now with the way the FDA has been handling this. I think there are other opportunities that any one of your readers might be interested in supporting, because we're generally supportive of advancing the policy for the whole industry.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.