Industry Seeks Federal Advisory Role to Accelerate Development of Hemp Market

Stakeholders team up to ensure hemp’s long-term success.

October 22, 2020

A coalition of more than 75,000 hemp farmers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers have joined forces to provide a secure, sustainable future for the industry while heading off potential legal challenges.

The National Hemp Association (NHA) and its Standing Committee of Hemp Associations, including most of the former state chapters of the Hemp Industries Association, represent approximately 95% of all hemp permit holders in the U.S. and are lobbying the White House and Congress for a federal advisory committee on hemp. The advisory committee would have the resources necessary to provide advice and research to the federal government regarding hemp cultivation, processing, manufacturing, and finished products.

NHA is also requesting that the Department of Justice recognize the advisory committee as a “friend of the court.” Parties with this designation can advise the court on cases to which it is not a party.

According to the NHA Chair Geoffrey W. Whaling, the hemp industry is at a tipping point. A unified effort is necessary to ensure that hemp’s opportunity to become a significant international economic force does not pass by. “I fear that if we don’t work together and farmers lose the trust of this crop … this will become a passing fad,” he says. “It won’t become an industry at all.”

Whaling says hemp faces many obstacles that can only be solved by a partnership between the private sector, Congress, the regulatory agencies, and the White House. “If we could have all of them sitting around one table to say, here are the challenges and here are the fixes that are needed, and here’s what we need to accelerate our industry,” then that gives everyone the best chance to address hemp’s challenges, Whaling says.

NHA is optimistic that it has the support needed to get an advisory committee approved. Hemp has bipartisan support in Congress and has the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the White House’s backing, Whaling says. For example, both the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) strongly support hemp. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and White House officials, including Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, also support it, Whaling says. He was able to give NHA’s Oct. 15 letter regarding the advisory committee directly to Meadows.

Things have slowed down as the presidential election approaches, but Whaling expects the process to pick back up again afterward, no matter which candidate wins. The Trump Administration has already expressed support for hemp, including signing the 2018 Farm Bill. Simultaneously, Democrats have expressed an interest in legalizing marijuana, which would most likely reflect support for hemp, according to Whaling. The only difference is that things might take a little longer to get started under President Biden because of the need to hire and appoint thousands of federal employees. Either way, it appears likely that 2021 would include a cooperative effort to address the challenges hemp faces.

These challenges include a lack of sufficient data and research on hemp, an uncertain regulatory structure, and waves of legal challenges at the federal and state level. For example, states have more data and analysis on hemp than the USDA because from 2014 until 2018, hemp was a state issue. So, with that head start, it makes sense to have an advisory committee that includes state experts advise the USDA on federal research and policy, Whaling says.

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“Congress has spoken, and, again, they need to get with the program," Geoffrey W. Whaling says of the DEA.

The federal government needs research to set necessary standards and best practices for hemp, and that is where an advisory committee makes a real difference. As part of this effort, Whaling says the groups would be looking to add the Council on Government Relations, a coalition of 190 research universities, academic medical centers, and research institutes to the advisory committee.

The need for a formal process to provide research advice to regulatory agencies is essential, Whaling says, for several reasons. The agencies must have the data they need to set standards for the hemp, farmers must have those standards to engender confidence in hemp as a rotation crop, and manufacturers must be sure of where they can source their supply to embrace hemp fully. “So, it’s not a chicken and egg issue. It’s a scrambled egg issue,” he says.

Another issue the advisory committee can help address is the legal uncertainty facing hemp. While the 2018 Farm Bill made it clear that hemp is no longer a controlled substance, the commodity still faces legal challenges from both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and some state district attorneys. Giving the advisory committee “friend of the court” or amicus curiae status allows the hemp industry to advise and, potentially, influence legal challenges to which they may not be a direct party.

The DEA is currently facing a lawsuit over its handling of hemp enforcement, and the administration issued its own interim rule on the subject. While advocates argue that the DEA no longer has authority over hemp after the 2018 Farm Bill, the agency strongly disagrees.

“The Farm Bill requires USDA to consult with the Attorney General on the promulgation of regulations and guidelines. The Attorney General has delegated his functions under the CSA [Controlled Substances Act] to the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (28 CFR 0.100). Therefore, Drug Enforcement Administration and USDA are following the law,” Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Michael D. Miller tells Hemp Grower. “The Farm Bill did not relieve the Drug Enforcement Administration of its obligation to enforce the CSA and products still controlled. Our engagement with the USDA is necessary as it relates to those circumstances.”

But Whaling strongly disagrees, noting that laws change and agencies’ authority changes along with it. “It’s called progress. Know that the law has changed,” he says. “Congress has spoken, and, again, they need to get with the program.”