Congressional Action on USDA Hemp Research Support135
In November 2015, several Members of Congress sent a letter to USDA requesting clarification of the agency’s research funds for industrial hemp.136 This action was in response to questions by a number of state and private research institutions on the extent to which industrial hemp initiatives were eligible for U.S. federal grant awards (both USDA and non-USDA program funds). These questions arose, in part, given mixed messages received by some land grant universities about whether they would qualify for USDA competitive grants to do industrial hemp research and initial indications that they would be denied such support. Some groups feared they could jeopardize eligibility for other grants if they pursued research into industrial hemp.
In late 2015, CRS staff attempted to get further clarification on USDA’s policy regarding industrial hemp and federal grants and loans to support research of industrial hemp with limited success. Information provided from USDA was not always consistent and often conflicting.137 According to USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the agency had not awarded any competitive research grants for industrial hemp (as of September 2015).138 However, subsequent searches of USDA’s Current Research Information System (CRIS) database139 indicate that NIFA formula-funded grants were used at Colorado State University for 2015 under available Hatch Act funding to study hemp cultivation as part of bigger grants about profitability of alternative agriculture in southern Colorado.140 Other available information, including correspondence between USDA and various congressional staff, suggests that USDA has no record of any application for industrial hemp research being denied. No additional information is available on whether any such applications had been proposed or would or could be approved.
A USDA memo dating back to December 2014 states that “NIFA supports” grants for industrial hemp research so long as that research meets existing state requirements consistent with the requirements in the 2014 farm bill (P.L. 113-79, §7606; 7 U.S.C. 5940).141 However, USDA staff indicated that the December 2014 memo pertains only to what the statutory provision authorizes and does not say anything explicitly about federal funding of industrial hemp research.142 Although this response did not address the underlying issue regarding federal funding, it likely indicates that researchers working on industrial hemp may carry on with this work at least on their own (according to requirements specified in the 2014 farm bill) without threatening their status and working relationship with USDA.
Other communication with USDA’s Rural Development Agency indicated that the agency’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service has initiated conversation with USDA’s Office of the General Counsel to review whether its programs could potentially support the industrial hemp industry.143 There does not appear to be any legal reason why USDA would not be able to provide grant funding for research activities on industrial hemp within the language of the 2014 farm bill provision, and the question remains about whether USDA will fund such applications in the future. Specifically, clarification is needed regarding whether industrial hemp research projects are eligible for USDA competitive grants (e.g., under USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program) and/or for Hatch Act formula funds, as well as clarification about whether hemp producers are eligible for other types of agricultural support from other USDA agencies (such as loans and grants administered by USDA’s Rural Development Agency).
Some have suggested that perhaps industrial hemp might qualify under certain other USDA grant programs, such as NIFA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative or USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. However, industrial hemp is not included among the crops that are considered “specialty crops” and technically would not qualify for any grant specifically designated for specialty crop producers.144 Other potential programs include the Organic Transitions Integrated Research Program (ORG) and the Value-Added Producer Grant Program.145
Some constituent groups have also expressed an interest in applying for other non-USDA grants, such as the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) intended to help certain small businesses conduct research and development and is coordinated by the Small Business Administration. CRS has not contacted other federal agencies aside from USDA.
Some of the questions raised by Congress’s November 2015 letter were addressed in the 2016 joint statement, but some questions remain, which were again posed in a follow-up letter by several Members of Congress.146 (For additional discussion, see “2016 Joint “Statement of Principles” on Industrial Hemp”.)
Groups Supporting/Opposing Further Legislation
In addition to industry groups as well as various state commissions and organizations that are actively promoting reintroducing hemp as a commodity crop in the United States, some key agricultural groups also support U.S. policy changes regarding industrial hemp. For example:
- The bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus—launched in February 2017 by Representatives Dana Rohrabacher, Don Young, Earl Blumenauer, and Jared Polis—is focused on policy reforms regarding federal drugs laws and issues regarding legalization in some states.
- The National Farmers Union (NFU) updated its 2013 farm policy regarding hemp to urge the President, Attorney General, and Congress to direct DEA to “reclassify industrial hemp as a non-controlled substance and adopt policy to allow American farmers to grow industrial hemp under state law without affecting eligibility for USDA benefits.”147 Previously NFU’s policy advocated that DEA “differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana and adopt policy to allow American farmers to grow industrial hemp under state law without requiring DEA licenses.”148
- The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) “supports revisions to the federal rules and regulations authorizing commercial production of industrial hemp” and has urged USDA, DEA, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy to “collaboratively develop and adopt an official definition of industrial hemp that comports with definitions currently used by countries producing hemp.” NASDA also “urges Congress to statutorily distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana and to direct the DEA to revise its policies to allow USDA to establish a regulatory program that allows the development of domestic industrial hemp production by American farmers and manufacturers.”149
- In 2014, the American Farm Bureau Federation, from efforts led by the Indiana Farm Bureau, endorsed a policy to support the “production, processing, commercialization, and utilization of industrial hemp”150 and reportedly also passed a policy resolution to oppose the “classification of industrial hemp as a controlled substance.” Previously, in 1995, the Farm Bureau had passed a resolution supporting “research into the viability and economic potential of industrial hemp production in the United States … [and] further recommend that such research includes planting test plots in the United States using modern agricultural techniques.”151
- Regional farmers’ organizations also have policies regarding hemp. For example, the North Dakota Farmers Union, as part of its federal agricultural policy recommendations, has urged “Congress to legalize the production of industrial hemp.”152 The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union has urged “Congress and the USDA to re-commit and fully fund research into alternative crops and uses for crops” including industrial hemp. Also, they “support the decoupling of industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana” under the CSA and “demand the President and the Attorney General direct the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to differentiate between industrial hemp and marijuana and adopt a policy to allow American farmers to grow industrial hemp under state law without requiring DEA licenses” to “legalize the production of industrial hemp as an alternative crop for agricultural producers.”153
- The National Grange voted in 2009 to support “research, production, processing and marketing of industrial hemp as a viable agricultural activity.”154
- In California, ongoing efforts to revise the definition of marijuana to exclude “industrial hemp” (SB 566) are supported by the state’s sheriffs’ association.155 The county farm bureau and two sheriffs’ offices supported previous efforts in 2011 to establish a pilot program to grow industrial hemp in selected counties (although the state’s governor later vetoed the bill, SB 676).156
- North American Industrial Hemp Council—a coalition of farmers, state legislators, former officials, scientists, merchants, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists—filed a petition in June 2016 asking DEA to “remove industrial hemp from the federal drug schedules.”157
Despite support by some, other groups continue to oppose policy changes regarding cannabis. For example, the National Alliance for Health and Safety, as part of Drug Watch International, claims that proposals to reintroduce hemp as an agricultural crop are merely a strategy by “the international pro-drug lobby to legalize cannabis and other illicit substances.”158 The California Narcotic Officers’ Association claims that allowing for industrial hemp production would undermine state and federal enforcement efforts to regulate marijuana production, since, they claim, the two crops are not distinguishable through ground or aerial surveillance but would require costly and time-consuming lab work to be conducted.159 This group also claims that these similarities would create an incentive to use hemp crops to mask illicit marijuana production, since marijuana is such a lucrative cash crop.160 Concerns about the potential linkages to the growing and use of illegal drugs are also expressed by some parent and community organizations, such as the Drug Free America Foundation and PRIDE.161
Given DEA’s current policy positions and perceived DEA opposition to changing its current policies because of concerns over how to allow for hemp production without undermining the agency’s drug enforcement efforts and regulation of the production and distribution of marijuana, hemp proponents say that further policy changes regarding industrial hemp are likely not forthcoming absent congressional legislative action.