After Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Representatives Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader, Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici raised concerns about funding for industrial hemp pilot projects last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken a key step by clarifying which industrial hemp research programs are eligible for existing federal funding.
The guidance from the USDA provides a response to a bicameral letter the legislators sent last year for funding for industrial hemp research pilot projects. Specifically, it clarifies that industrial hemp would be eligible for National Institute of Food Agriculture (NIFA) funding, though research must take place in one of twenty-eight states with certified pilot industrial hemp programs. Eligible applicants are institutes of higher education and state departments of agriculture.
While the USDA clarification that these programs are eligible for federal research dollars is a welcomed announcement, the guidance comes as part of a broader joint statement of principles issued in August by the USDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the implementation of states’ hemp pilot programs established under the 2014 Farm Bill. That statement raised further questions about other industrial hemp policies, which are inconsistent and conflict with federal law specifically regarding transportation, the definition of industrial hemp and the sale of hemp.
“Oregon farmers, and farmers across the country, have an opportunity to compete in the growing global hemp market. However, we need to clear the bureaucratic hurdles, and eliminate the unnecessary confusion and red tape that currently exists for our farmers and research institutions,” Schrader said. “I’m pleased that the USDA has taken the necessary steps to provide clarification in their guidance for hemp research pilot programs, like that at Oregon State University. We are now one step closer to seizing on this massive agricultural opportunity for our state and the country.”
“Ensuring funding is available to our states and universities will help Oregon put more hemp plants in the ground and propel industrial hemp research off the ground,” Wyden said. “I will continue working with my colleagues to get answers to the questions that remain so pilot projects like Oregon’s get the resources they need to ultimately seize on this burgeoning industry that provides a trifecta of benefits for farmers, the environment and the American economy.”
“It’s absurd to import hemp from abroad when we could be creating jobs here in America instead,” Merkley said. “Research is a critical component of getting industrial hemp farming back off the ground here in the United States, and this guidance is a key step to help boost Oregon’s efforts in this area.”
“Investment in and support for the industrial hemp pilot program is what will make Oregon an agricultural, economic, and academic leader in this field,” DeFazio said. “USDA’s guidance on the industrial hemp pilot program is a tremendous step forward, and I will continue to work to ensure Oregon’s agriculture and research community have the tools they need to capitalize on this emerging opportunity.”
“Hemp is an important agricultural commodity that dates back to the early years of our nation. This clarification is welcome news for hemp farmers and producers in Oregon, and in the 28 other states across the country that have removed barriers to industrial hemp production,” Blumenauer said. “For far too long, hemp has been caught in the middle of the failed War on Drugs. It’s past time that the federal government treat hemp as a crop, rather than an illicit drug.”
“For centuries, people have been using hemp to make paper, beauty products, food, and more,” Bonamici said. “It’s time for the federal government to recognize and support the benefits that come from industrial hemp. This clarification will increase access to funding for industrial hemp researchers in our state to boost our local markets and support innovation. I will continue to work with my colleagues to protect states—like Oregon—that have passed laws to support industrial hemp.”
Last year, the lawmakers urged the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and Oregon State University (OSU) to implement an industrial hemp pilot project in time for the 2016 growing season and requested a timeline for doing so. OSU has since gotten the necessary state and federal permissions to conduct industrial hemp research trials, but the complexity of current laws regarding hemp has delayed the university’s process for getting hemp seedlings for research.
Wyden and Merkley introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act last year to lift the federal ban on domestic farming of industrial hemp. The bill would remove hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and would define it as a non-drug so long as it contained less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Senate bill now has 15 co-sponsors. Blumenauer, Bonamici, DeFazio and Schrader are all co-sponsors of the House version of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act.
On November 20, 2015, 12 Senators and 37 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter requesting the USDA provide information on how the agency interprets its authority to award existing and competitive federal funds for the research of industrial hemp. The letter also requested information regarding how the USDA helps interested parties in the competitive grant process.
Industrial hemp is used throughout the world in thousands of products, including paper, fabrics, lotions, canvas, rope, and construction material. Currently, American farmers are banned from growing hemp in the United States under federal law. But the 2014 Farm Bill allowed institutions of higher education and state departments of agriculture to launch industrial hemp research pilot programs if they meet certain conditions. Twenty-eight states, including Oregon, have authorized industrial hemp pilot studies or production.