The U.S. House and Senate this week passed a long-anticipated agriculture bill with provisions that will federally legalize hemp, a move that has many speculating whether marijuana legalization will soon follow.
The House and Senate Conference Report to the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, otherwise known as the farm bill, passed through both the House and the Senate with an overwhelming majority after leaders of both chambers’ agriculture committees negotiated a compromise bill. The act, which is renewed every 10 years, removes industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, legalizing the plant closely related to the marijuana industry.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, introduced 25 provisions to the bill, including wildfire protection, drought resilience and hemp agriculture. Bennet spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday about his support for the bill’s protections for farmers, especially hemp farmers.
“In this volatile environment, this bill maintains crop insurance and makes risk management tools more effective. Most important to Colorado, this bill helps our farmers and ranchers diversify their operations,” Bennet said on the floor. “Our hemp growers have operated under a cloud of uncertainty for years. Our farmers worried about maintaining access to their water. They couldn’t buy crop insurance or transport seeds. Some ran into red tape opening a bank account or even applying for federal grants.”
Dontje Hildebrand, a hemp farmer at Colorado-based 43 Solutions, which sells CBD hemp products, echoed that sentiment. Hildebrand told The Durango Herald that the legalization will extend protections to hemp businesses that have been denied, like low-interest loans for farmers.
“Nationally, there is going to be protection. There’s not going to be this fear that if we get this CBD from Colorado, are we going to be in trouble,” Hildebrand said. “There’s all these gray areas that weren’t covered under federal law. Now that those are covered, the rest of the nation can kind of get on board with what we’re doing in Colorado.”
Hildebrand also said hemp farmers do not have access to federally-backed farm support programs, crop insurance, federal water and lands and business banking accounts, but now, this bill will open those doors, like Bennet said on the floor. Hildebrand said marijuana businesses in states where the crop is legalized, like Colorado, experience similar issues.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner agreed. Gardner previously told the Herald about introducing legislation to grant states the right to opt out of the Controlled Substances Act on marijuana, and he said the Farm Bill’s provision on hemp will continue the conversation on his States Act.
“The good thing about this is that it provided an educational opportunity for members in the Senate to learn about hemp and the hemp industry, and hopefully, to learn about marijuana issues affecting their state,” Gardner said. “More and more senators wake up to the reality that their state is moving without them on marijuana, whether it’s medical or recreational.”
Hildebrand said Colorado has “done the best job” with state hemp and marijuana regulation and predicts it will be a model for federal legalization.
“We’re really lucky because Colorado leads the nation with CBD production. That’s because we have a lot of state protections,” Hildebrand said. “That extends the benefit that we have here in Colorado that has allowed the culture of CBD production to flourish to become now nationally accepted and safe.”
According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s website, industrial hemp is defined as a cannabis plant that has a THC concentration less than 0.3 percent. The department’s Industrial Hemp Program regulates the cultivation of industrial hemp and administers a certified seed program.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, also supported the hemp provision, after cosponsoring the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017. In a news release, Tipton said legalization will open more economic opportunities for Coloradans.
“Industrial hemp has become an economic driver in (Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District), but concerns over the Controlled Substances Act have prevented the crop from reaching its full potential,” Tipton said in the release. “The 2018 Farm Bill will provide hemp farmers with the certainty they need to invest in the crop well into the future.”
The bill includes provisions backed by Bennet, Gardner and Tipton. All three members of the Colorado congressional delegation voted YES on the bill.
Gardner said that after proposed work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were removed, there was heavy bipartisan support for the bill.
“When it comes to agriculture, there’s no Democrat or Republican cornfield,” Gardner said. “As a rural Coloradan, I understand how critically important the Farm Bill is for agriculture. ... This is a significant bill with major policy ramifications that affect millions upon millions of people around the country, so it is a tough bill to debate and negotiate.”
Gardner, however, said there were little to no fights about including the hemp provision because of bipartisan support he believes carries over into marijuana legalization.
The Farm Bill covers a wide range of issues for farmers and includes many provisions for wildfire prevention, drought management, habitat preservation and rural broadband expansion.
Gardner noted that the bill expanded the Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program and included language to prevent rising suicide levels among farmers. Tipton also backed a provision that will streamline the approval process for vegetation management projects to protect habitats.
The legislation now needs President Donald Trump’s signature before becoming law, which is expected before 2019.
Emily Martin is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.