USDA Extends Deadline for Hemp Program Comments; States Seek Policy Change

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has extended the comment period for its interim final rules regarding the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program in order to allow the public additional time to provide feedback. The deadline, initially set for December 29, has been extended to January 29, 2020.

The extension was due, in part, to requests from the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture as well as members of Congress, including Senator Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging USDA to extend the public comment period.

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The USDA has also received additional hemp-related requests from members of congress. Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both of Virginia, have called for changes in hemp testing requirements in order to ease the burden on farmers. In a letter sent to the agency, the senators called for an increase in the length of time producers are allotted to have cultivated plants tested. The 2018 farm bill provided producers only fifteen days to have products tested, a narrow window that could be difficult to meet.

Fearing the fifteen-day window could also become a burden to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency charged with overseeing hemp testing, Virginia’s U.S. House members made a similar request in a separate letter. “The DEA currently has a limited number of registered labs in Virginia, and with the fifteen-day turnaround time, these labs will be overwhelmed during harvest periods,” they wrote.

The House’s letter also called on the DEA to allow independent lab testing of hemp products in order to avoid a backlog of untested products—which could have a negative impact the hemp market—and voiced concern about harsh penalties farmers may face for inadvertently producing hemp exceeding 0.3 percent THC.

“We recommend adding mediation options so that farmers acting in good faith who accidentally exceed the [THC] threshold can resolve the issue without fear of criminal prosecution,” the letter read.

“We appreciate [USDAs] commitment to the nation’s farmers and agribusinesses, as well as [its] commitment to ensuring that the hemp industry grows in a safe fashion,” House members wrote. “At a time when farmers are experiencing low commodity prices, extreme weather, and volatile market fluctuations, providing clear and reasonable regulatory guidance to producers has become particularly important.”

Virginia House Representative Denver Riggleman (R) thanked his fellow House members for their support of U.S. domestic hemp production. “I am grateful to the entire Virginia delegation for signing this letter,” he said on Twitter. “Industrial hemp is a game-changer for Southside.”

It was a busy week for USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue who also received a letter from both U.S. Senators in Maine, Susan Collins (R) and Angus King (I), as well as Maine House members Chellie Pingree (D) and Jared Golden (D). In the letter, the lawmakers urged USDA to consider the recommendations from Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. Maine authorities are also concerned about a potential logjam with DEA-only lab testing. Collins and King expressed concern about financial barriers for the hemp and CBD industries. They called for a clear set of regulations and encouraged adoption of the principles outlined in the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which has already passed in the U.S. House. 

Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon made similar requests in a letter sent to USDA several weeks ago.

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