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Why Is the DEA Messing with the American Hemp Market?

Photo by Dan Skye

Hemp is still the most magic of all the plants in America. (First, a reminder: hemp is Cannabis sativa with next to no THC. Marijuana, in the always rational parlance of America, is also Cannabis sativa, but with THC.)

Hemp is legal to import into the U.S., and you can legally make hemp into products which you can then sell, like rope, soap, clothes and food. But for many years, you could not legally grow hemp, despite wild stands of the stuff growing in ditches through the Midwest, and store shelves full of hemp products.

That changed when Barack Obama signed into law the 2014 farm bill, allowing hemp to be legally grown in at least 16 states under certain, limited circumstances.

Yet hemp isn’t legalized. At all.

American-grown hemp is still illegal to ship across state lines. And hemp products are only legal to sell if the hemp was grown overseas—not in the U.S.

Huh. In case this was ambiguous or plain illogical, a few months after Obama allowed limited hemp farming to move forward, the DEA became involved and injected even less clarity.

DEA agents seized hemp seeds imported into the U.S. to be used for a state-legal pilot program in Kentucky. And in December, the DEA declared that certain extracts derived from hemp—hemp, the “legal” Cannabis sativa—are Schedule I controlled substances, and thus wholly and totally illegal under federal law.  

Follow? No?

Good—because it doesn’t make sense.

The DEA’s mutable approach to hemp is also rankling at least one top Republican lawmaker. As MassRoots’s Tom Angell reported, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the influential House Judiciary Committee, took Acting DEA Chief Chuck Rosenberg behind the woodshed in a contentious Capitol Hill hearing on Tuesday for running what amounts to a clown show with no punchline.

“Are you looking to harass hemp farmers?” he asked Rosenberg, who insisted that DEA agents only intervened with hemp farming when it violated the farm bill, which allows for hemp to be grown for “research” and pilot programs. (And MassRoots pointed out, the Kentucky seed seizure demonstrates this is not true.) The congressman was not impressed. “There should be an easier path for people with a product that is commercially viable for a lot of purposes,” Goodlatte said.

Meanwhile, hemp farmers in North Carolina are so irritated with the DEA’s erraticism that the state’s official hemp-growing commission is considering joining in a lawsuit filed against the agency.

“We cannot let this stand as an industry,” said Bob Crumley, president of Founder’s Hemp, the first company in the state to be approved to grow hemp legally (and a nice idea at the time it was), according to the News & Observer. “If we let what the DEA is currently doing stand, we need to fold our tents and give everybody their money back.”

So far, 22 hemp farmers have received official permission from the state to start growing hemp. And there are at least 50 more farmers who want to start growing hemp in North Carolina, according to the newspaper.

However, six of the 22 now have their applications on hold—since they planned to buy American hemp seed, which the DEA may not allow. Thus far, only the 16 who planned to import their source material have been cleared to grow.

It’s not clear whether Congress or the courts will act first, but something has to give. Look at the times we live in. We’re no jingoistic nationalists, but even we can recognize that discouraging American products in the age of Trump is a bad idea.

“To say that a Canadian farmer has more rights in this market than a farmer from North Carolina or Kentucky does—it’s ridiculous,” Crumley told the newspaper. “It’s abhorrent.”

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