You may have missed it among headlines about the looming government shutdown and plunging stock markets, but when President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill on Dec. 21, he officially removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.
The legislation, pushed hard by Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), officially distinguishes hemp from marijuana, its psychotropic cousin, defining industrial hemp as a cannabis plant with no more than 0.3 percent THC content on a dry-weight basis. It changes hemp from a controlled substance to an agricultural commodity, making it legal to grow, sell and transport throughout the country. The legislation also carves cannabidiol (CBD) out of the Controlled Substances Act, paving the way for a raft of new studies on the compound, which has been linked to a host of wellness claims.
There is a catch, however, in that the FDA has announced that it still considers CBD a drug and therefore an illegal ingredient in food and other products unless approved by the administration.
Still, the Farm Bill has some in financial circles predicting big things from the CBD industry, with the cannabis research firm Brightfield Group predicting CBD sales will grow 40-fold by 2022. The thinking is that the new federal classification will open up new markets for CBD products, while allowing production to skyrocket with the decriminalization of industrial hemp.
Even before the Farm Bill, production of industrial hemp has been on the rise. In 2017, 19 states utilized a variety of legal exceptions to grow 25,000 acres of industrial hemp, a 163 percent increase from 2016. Industry experts predict that number will balloon in 2019.
But it won't be an all out free-for-all. States and the federal government will still have oversight over hemp cultivation, with states required to submit their programs for monitoring cultivation to the USDA for approval.
What this means for the larger cannabis industry remains unclear. The bill is narrowly tailored and doesn't apply to all CBD products, just those that contain CBD derived from legally produced industrial hemp, meaning those derived from marijuana will remain federally illegal, even if produced in states with recreational and medical laws on the books. This leaves producers who have been making CBD products legally in California on the outside of the newly legal national market unless they switch to using industrial hemp.
The Farm Bill puts a cap on 2018, which proved a banner year for cannabis.
Canada legalized recreational weed. Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah passed medical cannabis laws, while Vermont became the first state to approve recreational pot through the legislative process. Michigan voters also approved a recreational-use ballot measure. Meanwhile, a series of polls showed that for the first time a majority of Republicans support federal legalization in the United States.
The federal Food and Drug Administration approved Epidiolex for treatment of childhood-onset epilepsy, making it the first cannabis-derived drug to get the feds' approval. Canopy Growth, meanwhile, became the first cannabis stock to list on the New York Stock Exchange as worldwide investment in cannabis-related companies quadrupled to $13.8 billion, according to Forbes.
California, meanwhile, continues its slow rollout of cannabis regulations. With the New Year, a new phase of laboratory testing requirements will kick in, forcing businesses to test for heavy metals and toxins created by mold before they can legally sell their products.
While the new requirements add another layer of consumer protections, some in the industry warn they will increase testing costs by 40 to 55 percent — added expenses that could be passed on to consumers. Additionally, some worry they will worsen the existing bottleneck at the 43 state-licensed testing labs.
But the new phase of testing comes with some wiggle room, as dispensaries will still be allowed to sell cannabis and products harvested or manufactured before Dec. 31.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.