The cannabis umbrella is overarching, and even the hemp industry must look toward equity and righting past wrongs caused by drug criminalization of the past. A new bipartisan bill is looking to do just that, specifically expanding economic opportunities within the hemp industry for formerly incarcerated individuals.

On Tuesday, senior House Agriculture Committee member Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, along with Reps. David Trone (D-Md.), David Joyce (R-Ohio), and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced bipartisan legislation, the Free to Grow Act, which would end drug felony probation for hemp farmers.

Pingree said that even though the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized hemp production, the industry’s growth is being “stunned by red tape, discriminatory policy, and regulatory uncertainty.” The new act was introduced until the new Farm Bill, expected later this year.

“The upcoming Farm Bill gives Congress a once-in-five-years opportunity to correct the unfair policy that bans people with drug convictions from growing hemp,” Pingree said in a news release. “I am proud to join Reps. Trone, Joyce, and Mace in that effort by introducing the Free to Grow Act, addressing this injustice and supporting a thriving hemp economy.”

Even though the hemp industry is seeing renewed momentum, the law still prohibits people with a drug conviction within the past 10 years from cultivating hemp. As the industry’s annual value of hemp production has grown to more than $800 million annually, preventing formerly incarcerated individuals from participating further exacerbates their potential inability to start a new business in a growing market and thrive financially, the release states.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) clarified that the ban only applied to “key participants,” like executives or those with financial interests tied to the business. Still, lawmakers are looking to remove the language around formerly incarcerated individuals altogether. The bill simply states its purpose “to amend the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to repeal the prohibition for certain individuals convicted of a felony offense to participate in hemp production and for other purposes.”

Speaking with Marijuana Moment, Joyce referenced the “outdated federal cannabis laws” that continue to hinder innovation and economic development, even in reference to something like hemp which is non-intoxicating. Mace also nodded to the issues those formerly incarcerated face in general and how these restrictions ultimately aren’t productive.

“Let’s not put more restrictions on an already legal business for these people. Hemp is legal and used for a variety of circumstances, including stress and skin conditions,” she said. “The bipartisan Free to Grow Act will lift this prohibition on the restriction and allow those formerly incarcerated to thrive in the hemp industry.”

The 2018 Farm Bill surely shook up the hemp industry in the West, allowing for the production and sale of CBD products as professionals continue to explore the many industrial applications hemp could offer. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it will need to create a new regulatory pathway for CBD, balancing individuals’ desire to access CBD products and “the regulatory oversight needed to manage risks.”

Hemp farmers have also expressed concern over wasted crops as they attempt to comply with the U.S. threshold of 0.3% THC or less for hemp. Advocates are hoping that this year’s Farm Bill will see an increase in the THC threshold up to 1%. Hemp advocates are also seeking to expand USDA support for hemp and hemp products, including efforts to expand research around genetics and management practices, sustainability practices and designating hemp as a specialty crop which could qualify hemp for USDA programs that tie eligibility to the “specialty crop” definition.

An August 2022 report published by Facts and Factors predicted that the Industrial Hemp Market is projected to grow to $17.24 billion by 2030, with a compound annual growth rate of 16.9%. The demand was valued at approximately $4.5 billion in 2021.




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