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Hemp may now be federally legal, but congressional lawmakers are still seeking changes to laws governing the crop. And Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) recently previewed forthcoming legislation to ease restrictions on the burgeoning industry while also eliminating a ban on participation in the market by people with felony drug convictions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been placed in charge with regulating hemp since the crop was legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But some of the rules that the agency set for hemp businesses have been met with criticism, with stakeholders arguing that they unduly burden the market.

Pingree hasn’t yet released the text of her reform legislation—which is being titled the Hemp Advancement Act—but she did preview some key provisions during a recent meeting with U.S. Hemp Roundtable stakeholders.

The congresswoman said the bill, which will be released “in the coming weeks,” will eliminate a policy that precludes people with felony drug convictions in the past 10 years from receiving a hemp business license.

“This provision disproportionately excludes communities of color from participating in this emerging market—and, frankly, it just has no place in our public policy,” Pingree said, adding that she was “shocked when I first realized that there was a prohibition on someone with a felony drug charge” from entering the industry.

The bill will also seek to increase the THC threshold for hemp and hemp extracts during the production process to avoid possible problems for businesses. Hemp is defined under federal statute as containing no more than 0.3 percent THC, but that amount can temporarily increase during manufacturing, so Pingree’s measure would provide relevant safeguards.

The congresswoman said her intention with the bill is to “make the [USDA] rules more workable for growers and processors.”

Further, the proposal would remove a controversial USDA requirement that hemp be tested only at labs that are registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Stakeholders have been pushing for that reform, contending that the limitation would create a bottlenecking of hemp testing that could hold the industry back.

“There are currently zero DEA registered labs in Maine, and frankly there’s only one in all of New England,” Pingree said. “So that just does not work.”

Beyond her forthcoming bill, additional issues with the existing hemp regulations could be addressed in the next version of the large-scale agricultural legislation that’s expected in 2023, the congresswoman said.

“Congress often follows public opinion. We have been, at a federal level, following the activity of the states, so I think there’s going to be a lot of recognition of this,” she said. “I think the next Farm Bill is a place for us to really scrub some of those issues out.”

Earlier this year, Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Morgan Griffith (R-VA) filed a separate bill aimed at allowing hemp and CBD derived from the crop to be marketed and sold as dietary supplements. That’s been another major source of controversy, as the current lack of regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is viewed as a central barrier for the hemp industry’s growth.

In the Senate, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) filed a bill that would similarly exempt “hemp, hemp-derived cannabidiol, or a substance containing any other ingredient derived from hemp” from certain restrictions that have blocked the emergence of legal consumable hemp products while the FDA has slow-walked regulations.

Paul also introduced separate legislation in March that would triple the concentration of THC that hemp could legally contain while addressing multiple other concerns the industry has expressed about the federal regulations.

Lawmakers have pressured FDA to adopt regulations that would provide for such marketing since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill. But so far, the agency has simply offered enforcement discretion guidance for these products while it continues to craft formal rules.

Meanwhile, USDA is closely following—and working to support—the hemp industry through other services.

Last month, for example, the agency announced that it is teaming up with university researchers to figure out the best ways to keep weeds (not the marijuana kind) out of hemp during the production process.

USDA also announced recently that it is moving forward with a large-scale survey to gain insight into the hemp market.

After requesting permission from the White House earlier this year to conduct the survey of about 20,000 hemp farmers, the agency’s National Agricultural Statistics Service recently said that the forms are being finalized to be filled out via mail or online.

USDA is asking questions about plans for outdoor hemp production, acreage for operations, primary and secondary uses for the crop and what kinds of prices producers are able to bring in. The questionnaire lists preparations such as smokeable hemp, extracts like CBD, grain for human consumption, fiber and seeds as areas the department is interested in learning about.

Last year, USDA announced plans to distribute a separate national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.

That survey is being completed in partnership with National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and the University of Kentucky. The department said it wanted to learn about “current production costs, production practices, and marketing practices” for hemp.

There’s still much to learn about the burgeoning market, even as USDA continues to approve state regulatory plans for the crop. Most recently, the agency approved a hemp plan submitted by Colorado, where officials have consistently insisted that the state intends to be a leader in the space.

While USDA’s final rule for hemp took effect on March 22, the agency is evidently still interested in gathering information to further inform its regulatory approach going forward. Industry stakeholders say the release of the final rule is a positive step forward that will provide businesses with needed guidance, but they’ve also pointed to a number of policies that they hope to revise as the market matures such as USDA’s hemp testing requirements.

The federal Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy expressed a similar sentiment in a blog post in February, writing that it is “pleased with some of the changes that [USDA] has made to the rule, as they offer more certainty and are less burdensome to small farmers,” but “some concerns remained unaddressed in the final rule.”

USDA announced in April that it is teaming up with a chemical manufacturing company on a two-year project that could significantly expand the hemp-based cosmetics market.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy announced in August that it is sponsoring a project to develop hemp fiber insulation that’s designed to be better for the environment and public health than conventional preparations are.

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