It sounds like a very simple question: Can you legally buy hemp products like chocolate bark, seeds and oils?
The surprising answer: It’s complicated.
“It’s muddled, but only because of a lack of clarity at the federal level,” said Duane Sinning, who oversees the industrial hemp program for the Department of Agriculture in Colorado, the nation’s No. 1 hemp producer.
Melvin Patterson, a spokesman with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration headquarters outside D.C., said from the agency’s viewpoint it’s quite clear.
All hemp products that can be consumed are illegal, he said.
That seems odd, considering that the products aren’t hidden in some back room. They’re on display for shoppers to see — and buy — while pushing carts down aisles at nutritional supplement and natural food stores as well as major grocery chains and retail stores.
So why are these products for sale at so many stores?
“We’re in the middle of an opioid crisis, so our focus isn’t on coming in and seizing chocolate hemp,” Patterson said. “But it’s illegal.”
Curtis Hill, Indiana’s attorney general, issued an opinion Nov. 21 concluding that CBD oils are illegal, according to the IndyStar. So Gov. Eric Holcomb directed store owners across the state to pull the product within 60 days — or state excise police could remove it. The state created a registry in April allowing epileptic patients to use the oils to ease seizures, but soon the product won’t be found in Indiana stores.
Patterson admits you can’t get high from industrial hemp products like CBD oil sprays and pills, made using cannabinoids extracted from the hemp flower. That’s because the federal government caps the level of THC — the psychoactive ingredient — to 0.3 percent, much lower than what is found in marijuana.
And most food products, like hemp seed hearts, come from the seed of the plant and don’t contain THC.
Still, the special agent points out that the plant remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance along with marijuana.
Not everyone agrees.
“In the state of Colorado, all of those (hemp) products would be legal as long as the THC came under 0.3,” Sinning said, referencing the Farm Bill. “That’s the way we would interpret it.”
Kentucky agricultural officials agree.
“Congress could not have been more clear that hemp research can occur in many ways,” including “by testing market conditions in stores where the products are sold to consumers,” according to a statement sent to Courier Journal in November from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
The confusion started three years ago with the passage of a key federal law.
The lengthy “2014 Farm Bill” included a section allowing states to pass laws allowing industrial hemp as long as state agriculture departments oversaw the pilot programs. Section 7606 is brief — some say too brief — at just two pages and is titled “Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research.” It didn’t specify who could sell it.
From Colorado agricultural officials’ perspective, the law is vague but its intent is to allow research to see if the versatile plant can be a solid cash crop for struggling farmers.
“You can’t see if there’s consumer acceptance without marketing it and selling it,” Sinning said.
Take this quiz: How well do you know hemp?
The law states that industrial hemp products can be sold in states, like Kentucky and Colorado, where pilot programs are underway. But it said products should be sold for “marketing research” and not ”for the purpose of general commercial activity.”
After widespread confusion, three federal agencies came together in August 2016, to put out a statement meant to clarify. But some say the opinion by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration only created more confusion. It stated that the industrial hemp programs are limited to fiber and seed — it didn’t mention the CBD oil extracted from the hemp flower. That implied the oil wasn’t legal.
“I don’t know anyone who finds it clear concise and easy to follow,” Sinning said.
A month later, Ryan Quarles, Kentucky Department of Agriculture commissioner, fired back a response to the three federal agencies, calling it “inappropriate for federal agencies to impose additional restrictions.”
“Here in Kentucky, more than half of the acreage currently cultivated … is for cannabidiol (CBD)” oil, Quarles wrote. “CBD shows great promise as an economically viable agricultural product.
“It is incumbent upon those of us who work in government to do everything possible within the limits of the law to support our growers and processors.”
One of Kentucky’s largest industrial hemp growers and CBD oil producers, Ananda Hemp, and its parent company Ecofibre, based in Australia, sought legal advice before issuing a statement last December that says in part, “We strongly believe that our farming operations and products … are and will continue to be compliant and legal in all 50 states.”
Kentucky’s commissioner is among those pushing to remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances.
That change in federal law would remove the current confusion about whether consumers can legally buy its products.
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