FAQs on industrial hemp

Editor’s note: Industrial hemp was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is gathering information to develop regulations for an industrial hemp program, which it expects to release this fall, in advance of the 2020 growing season. Here, we offer a quick introduction to the plant and issues around it.


Is hemp the same as marijuana?

No. Although both derive from the Cannabis Sativa family and look somewhat similar, there is one key difference: Marijuana has much higher levels of a compound called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is what creates the “high” feeling. Industrial hemp levels of THC cannot exceed 0.3 percent. THC levels in marijuana range from 5 percent to as much as 35 percent or more.

Can smoking or eating hemp get you high?

No. Even if the THC content in hemp exceeds the legal threshold of 0.3 percent, it still falls short of the levels found in marijuana plants. “If the THC content goes up, there might be a little high, but it would not be the same as from true marijuana,” said Mahmoud Elsohly, a professor of pharmaceutics and a research professor at the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Mississippi.

What is industrial hemp used for?

It can be used to make rope, textiles, paper, biofuel, and insulation, among other products. A big focus of today’s hemp farmers, however, is cannabidiol (CBD), which is often processed into an oil. This has led to growers developing varieties with higher CBD content.

CBD oils are added to numerous products, typically foods, drinks, supplements and creams, even some products developed for pets. CBD is touted as having health benefits such as reducing anxiety — although there hasn’t been sufficient research to completely verify those claims — and helping with inflammation. The Food and Drug Administration has approved one drug containing CBD, Epidiolex, after trials showed it reduced seizures in children with two rare forms of epilepsy.

What’s the growth been like?

Although growing hemp was made legal by the 2018 Farm Bill, the 2014 Farm Bill allowed for research and pilot programs. Several states soon embarked on hemp pilot programs, and had hemp crops as early as 2014, such as Kentucky; others followed over the next four years.

Additionally, Colorado voters passed Amendment 64 in 2012, which outlined state hemp and marijuana policies. The state legislature then enacted laws for the cultivation of marijuana as well as hemp. Its licensing program went into effect shortly after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill. Since then, Colorado has been the nation’s largest producer of hemp. In 2018, growers registered nearly 31,000 acres for hemp production, more than double 2017’s totals.

Kentucky was right on Colorado’s heels, as growers had their first crop in the ground in 2014 as well. After starting with 33 acres planted that first year, growers planted 3,200 acres in 2017 and more than 6,700 acres in 2018. For 2019, the state has permitted industrial hemp growers to cultivate up to 42,086 acres and 2.9 million square feet of greenhouse space.

While Colorado’s Department of Agriculture doesn’t track sales data, Kentucky’s does.

In Kentucky, hemp processors paid farmers $17.8 million for harvested hemp materials in 2018, up from $7.5 million in 2017, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Processors reported $57.8 million in gross product sales last year, up from $16.7 million in 2017.

Is CBD legal?

It depends if the CBD is derived from hemp or marijuana, what it’s being used for, and what product it’s in; laws vary by state. Be advised, much has yet to be resolved around CBD, so it’s best to check with your state ag department or attorney general’s office.

The Food and Drug Administration administers the rules for adding CBD to food or drinks, and cosmetics. It requires a “cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim, to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce.

“Additionally, it’s unlawful under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to introduce food containing added CBD or THC into interstate commerce, or to market CBD or THC products as, or in, dietary supplements, regardless of whether the substances are hemp-derived.”

What’s next?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently collecting feedback and will issue rules for growers and processors this fall, in time for next year’s growing season.

Additionally, state departments of agriculture have to consult with their governor and chief law enforcement officer to devise a plan that must be submitted to the secretary of the USDA, according to the Brookings Institution. The USDA must approve a state’s plan to license and regulate hemp before it can proceed.

In the meantime, the 2018 Farm Bill provides that states, tribal nations, and institutions of higher education can continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed for pilot and research programs.