LANSING, MI — A smidge too much THC could render entire crops useless and financially ruin Michigan’s new hemp farmers.
“If your hemp is hot, it’s hot, and it has to be destroyed,” Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Legislative Liaison Nathan Kark said during a Michigan hemp farming presentation to the state Senate Agriculture Committee Thursday, Jan. 16.
The federal government in 2018 legalized “industrial hemp,” strictly defined as cannabis sativa with less than .3% THC, the high-inducing compound found in marijuana.
While the same plant, marijuana is usually grown for its THC and smoked or otherwise ingested for a recreational high or medicinal effects. Hemp is harvested for fiber used in fabrics, paper, construction materials, food, and cosmetics, or for its non-psychoactive compounds, like CBD, an extract used as a natural remedy for anxiety, insomnia, depression and pain, among other ailments.
Michigan in 2019 took the federal government up on its offer allowing states to create their own pilot hemp farming programs. In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) worked to create federal hemp farming rules, some of which Michigan officials say are “unrealistic.”
The federal rules aren’t yet finalized, as an extended public comment window remains open though January.
Once the federal rules are complete, they will remain in place for at least two years. Michigan is working on its own hemp farming program that must comply with and be approved by the USDA.
Several federal rules of concern were highlighted during the MDARD’s presentation Thursday:
The .3% THC limit: Although marijuana is legal for medical or recreational use in most U.S. states, it remains illegal under federal law, listed alongside heroin as a schedule I controlled substance.
In order to remain distinct from marijuana, hemp must have a negligible amount of THC. If the THC in hemp tests above that strict threshold, it muse be destroyed.
“That’s an area that I believe (the USDA is) probably getting quite a few comments on,” Kark said. “That .3% is a pretty hard and fast rule.”
Based on 847 samples tested by MDARD in 2019, 84% were within the acceptable THC range, MDARD Lab Division Director Craig VanBuren said. Of 603 licensed hemp farmers, nearly 40%, 242 growers, didn’t submit any samples for testing last year.
At this point, there is “no flexibility” in the destruction requirement, MDARD Industrial Hemp Program Director Gina Alessandri said.
“They stressed that they’re not interested in putting anybody out of interest … ” she said. “They did say they are working with DEA to see if there are any area to where there would be some flexibility to redirect non-compliant hemp for maybe an industrial purpose, such as a building material or fiber, that kind of thing.”
15 days to harvest: Under proposed federal rules, hemp farmers must harvest their crop within 15 days of receiving THC lab results. The reason is that THC levels aren’t stagnant and may continue to climb as the plant remains rooted, MDARD Industrial Hemp Program Director Gina Alessandri said.
“That’s the other area that USDA will receive a lot of comment on,” she said.
While the tight window is a concern, especially for large growers and the 58 percent of 2019 pilot program farmers who harvested by hand, Alessandri said only 8% failed to meet the deadline during the first year of the program.
Sample collection: The Michigan pilot program allowed farmers to collect and submit their own samples for THC testing. That won’t be allowed to continue under federal rules.
“Probably one of the biggest deviations … from our 2019 pilot program is that those those growers that were previously able to collect their samples on their own, will no longer be able to do that, as we have to have DEA-registered or an other appointed law enforcement person brought and actually collect those samples for them with the chain of custody and some more steps in place,” Kark said. ” … We’re taking a deep dive into this internally and MDARD right now requires some additional inspectors.
“We’re trying to figure out if there’s a way we can do that within existing resources.”
Testing labs: Federal rules limit the number of labs allowed to test hemp.
“You see words like DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency, that’s the federal government exercising some of their oversight and saying that, well, laboratories need to be DEA registered” Kark said. “Forunately for MDARD, our Geagley Laboratory over in East Lansing already is DEA registered.”
Based on pilot program data, the lab was able to test and provide results to farmers within three days during the first harvest season.
Crop destruction: Based on MDARD projections, about 16.6% of hemp crops are expected to fail THC limit tests in 2020, which means those plants will require destruction.
State Sen. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway said he’s “a little disappointed in how the feds came down on destruction.”
“If a producer has produced cannabis exceeding the acceptable hemp THC level, the material must be disposed of in accordance with the (Controlled Substances Act) and DEA regulations because such material constitutes marijuana, a schedule I controlled substance under the (Controlled Substances Act,” proposed hemp farming rules say. “Consequently, the material must be collected for destruction by a person authorized under the (Controlled Substances Act) to handle marijuana, such as a DEA-registered reverse distributor, or a duly authorized Federal, State, or local law enforcement officer.”
Lauwers said the “most sensible thing to do” would be to till the crop back into the field.
Alessandri said the Controlled Substances Act destruction rules are geared mostly toward prescription drugs, “clearly not anything close to destroying acreage.”
She said the USDA has indicated they are considering offering states “flexibility” in the way they require destruction of “hot” hemp.
“It has to be realistic,” Alessandri said, “and clearly it is not realistic right now.”
Michigan expects to finalize its own hemp farming rules by Oct. 31. MDARD is currently accepting license applications from hemp farmers and processors for the 2020 growing season.
As of Monday, the agency had received 252 hemp grower applications and 237 from processors, a category that also includes hemp brokers.
The 2019 growing season included 603 registered growers and 483 licensed processors.
Hemp program presentation to Judiciary Committee:
— Gus Burns is the marijuana beat reporter for MLive. Contact him with questions, tips or comments at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, @GusBurns. Read more from MLive about medical and recreational marijuana.
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