Once dubbed America’s No. 1 obstructionist by The Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is an unlikely ally in the corner of cannabis. However, he may have unwittingly opened the floodgates for its growth and progress by legalizing the commercial production of hemp.
Hemp, the often overlooked cousin of cannabis, lacks the concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that give cannabis its psychoactive effects, but contains greater concentrations of cannabidiol (CBD). And due to the growing demand for alternatives to pharmaceutical pain medications, CBD could be poised for a boom with a functioning domestic hemp market—though hemp is much more than CBD.
Hemp can be used for a variety of commercial products such as textiles, bioplastics and foods like hemp seeds and protein powder and it was industrially produced well into the 1950s until shifting market conditions and the introduction of federal regulations ushered in its cessation. Decades later hemp was officially made illegal in the United States under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the same federal statute that classifies cannabis as a Schedule I substance.
But the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, a law introduced by McConnell under the 2018 Farm Bill, removed hemp from the list of controlled substances and deemed it an agricultural commodity—a move that grants hemp farmers access to the national banking system, water rights and federal agricultural grants while helping to restore lost profits.
Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp will also be eligible for regulation by the USDA, meaning that it will be open to interstate commerce and qualified American-grown hemp can be labeled as certified organic. More importantly, crucial financing and research opportunities will be accessible for continued innovation as CBD is generally well tolerated and many conditions rely on CBD products. The legalization of hemp is also likely to improve patient access to these medications while potentially lowering their prices.
Several studies show that CBD is an effective treatment for childhood epilepsy syndromes such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, which tend to be unresponsive to antiseizure medications. Illnesses such as anxiety, nausea and chronic pain also respond well to the compound. However, the CBD industry has long been open to abuse because of a lack of government oversight which has allowed disreputable companies to profit off of undereducated consumers. Increased regulation will help stop this practice.
“Increasing public interest in these products makes it even more important with the passage of this law for the FDA to clarify its regulatory authority over these products.”
While increased regulation is surely to be celebrated, that same regulation could mean increased access will be slow to start. Hemp-derived CBD also qualifies as a food, drug, or cosmetic under FDA rules and the FDA will retain authority to regulate CBD products as it sees fit. Shortly after the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released a statement addressing plans to meet with stakeholders regarding potential safety concerns and the general production and marketing of hemp.
“We’re aware of the growing public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived products, including cannabidiol,” Gottlieb said in a December press announcement. “Increasing public interest in these products makes it even more important with the passage of this law for the FDA to clarify its regulatory authority over these products . . . we’ll use this meeting to gather additional input relevant to the lawful pathways by which products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds can be marketed, and how we can make these legal pathways more predictable and efficient . . . we’ll also solicit input relevant to our regulatory strategy related to existing products, while we continue to evaluate and take action against products that are being unlawfully marketed and create risks for consumers.”
While CBD products aren’t likely to appear at the Walgreens’ pharmacy in the next few months, there is already a healthy market for CBD and hemp-derived products. New Frontier Data reports show that U.S CBD sales reached $367 million in 2017, an increase nearing 40 percent. And the total retail value of U.S hemp products was estimated at $820 million that same year, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. With hemp’s proven fiscal value, it’s possible that CBD could eventually be legalized for all food and drink products once FDA standards are instituted. Regardless, there aren’t signs of this trend slowing down.