The future of hemp as a legal crop is secure regardless of the outcome of the contentious 2020 election due, in great part, to its widespread support on Capitol Hill.
While there is much uncertainty in the 2020 election with the presidency and control of the Senate up for grabs, Vote Hemp President Eric Steenstra says support across the aisle helps ensure a secure future for hemp. Vote Hemp is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to the acceptance of and free market for hemp as an agricultural crop in the U.S.
However, he adds that politics' lack of impact cuts both ways as the Drug Enforcement Agency is unlikely to change its hardline stance on the crop regardless of what happens on November 3rd.
The Presidential Race
Steenstra, who has been advocating for hemp for 20 years, believes that both the Republican incumbent President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden will support hemp. Trump has shown support in the past by signing into law the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill), which reestablished hemp as a legal crop.
Biden and the Democrats have long supported the legalization of cannabis-based products, including hemp. One note of caution, Steenstra adds, is that Biden's running mate Kamala Harris had been tough on marijuana as California's Attorney General. But Harris came out as recently as the October 7th vice-presidential debate in favor of federal legalization of marijuana, which Steenstra notes presumably shows support of hemp as well.
The future of the Senate is in question, Steenstra says, but either way, hemp looks to continue to have bipartisan support. This is true because both the current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have long supported the crop.
Despite this fact, Steenstra says that McConnell's re-election bid is the most important race to watch in the upcoming election. Vote Hemp's focus on this race is not because of Democratic challenger Amy McGrath's position on hemp, as she supports the crop. Instead, the race is essential because McConnell has been such a big proponent of hemp.
"There's nobody in Washington that's done more for hemp than McConnell over the past couple of years," Steenstra says, adding, "I don't think we would have gotten it over the finish line in the 2018 Farm Bill if it wasn't for his work."
Another issue in play is who will take over the chairmanship of the pivotal Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee that has jurisdiction over hemp farming. With Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) retiring, there is a question of who will take over if Republicans maintain control of the chamber. If Democrats take the Senate, then the committee's leadership would likely fall to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who Steenstra says has been supportive of hemp, which is legally farmed in her state.
All in all, the election may have only a small effect on the hemp industry, as regulatory agencies remain the dominant force over hemp’s future. Agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and their policy positions are driven in large part by career staff, not political appointees, Steenstra says. So, despite who wins in November, the DEA is likely to continue to place roadblocks in the hemp industry's way.
This fact is particularly relevant given the DEA's interim rule, Implementation of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which designates all hemp derivatives or extracts exceeding 0.3% THC as Schedule I controlled substances. Vote Hemp alleges this could be interpreted to include intermediate hemp derivatives that temporarily exceed 0.3% during processing but contain less than 0.3% in final products. The group, as well as other industry associations, such as the Hemp Industries Association, and companies like RE Botanicals, argue that the DEA is overstepping its regulatory authority and undermining the intent of the 2018 law.
The dispute with the DEA does raise one final issue for hemp in the upcoming election: Who would take over for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue under the Biden administration, and what effect would that leave on the industry?
This appointment is worth watching if Biden were to prevail, Steenstra says, because Purdue has been such a strong advocate for hemp and against the DEA having a role in overseeing the crop. He made this point clear during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee in March when he accused the agency of tying the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hands in its efforts to regulate and support the emerging crop.