Hemp field

A field of hemp.

Farmers have been poring over the details of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s interim rules governing the production of hemp. They haven’t liked a lot of what they see.

If nothing else, the rules have ended a lot of people’s dreams of quick, big money in the hemp business.

It’s not all bad news. Now that hemp is legal growers can access USDA programs such as crop insurance, farm loans and conservation programs. Farmers can also use water from federal irrigation projects to grow the crop.

But the rub comes in rules designed to keep legal hemp from becoming an illegal source of delta-9 THC, the psychoactive substance found in cannabis.

And here you may require a brief tutorial in cannabis chemistry. Both marijuana and hemp contain various compounds — delta 9 THC, THCA, CBD, CBDA and CBG to name a few. Several of these compounds have commercial purposes, some more legal than others.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but “legal” in some states for medicinal and recreational purposes. Growers select varieties with high delta-9 THC levels. The more THC, the bigger the buzz, the more valuable the crop.

Industrial hemp, on the other hand, has relatively low levels of delta-9 THC. It is most often grown to extract CBD oil, which is sold for its alleged medicinal value.

Under USDA rules, legal hemp becomes illegal marijuana when it contains more than 0.3% THC. How that level is measured is the detail that can make or break an otherwise legal hemp crop.

Over the last few years, state ag departments regulating the crop have measured only delta-9 THC. But the USDA’s new rules would measure “total THC,” taking into account THCA — which converts into delta-9 THC when heated.

Under that standard some cannabis that qualified as hemp in previous years would exceed the threshold and need to be destroyed.

The USDA also wants the plants tested within 15 days of harvest. That’s a pretty tight window given the unpredictability of fall weather in the Pacific Northwest and the USDA’s requirement that testing be performed only at labs approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Oregon Democrats and long-time hemp advocates, have asked the USDA to adopt less strict testing protocols that would consider only delta-9 THC levels, give farmers a longer window to test plants, and more labs to do the testing.

“Farmers in Oregon and across the country are on the precipice of an agricultural boom that, with the right regulatory framework, stands to boost rural economies in every corner of the country,” they wrote to Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue.

We think they’re right in asking for a more favorable testing regime. The chances people will grow hemp for illicit THC seem pretty small given the availability of somewhat legal marijuana.

Whether hemp is a boon for rural economies remains to be seen. But farmers don’t need the USDA throwing up unnecessary roadblocks.

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