When President Trump put his signature on a new Farm Bill toward the end of 2018, a move that legalized industrial hemp production nationwide, the agricultural community thought they would be hitting the ground running in the new year with the advent of a long lost cash crop. But it’s going to take a while longer than anticipated for hemp to become a legitimate product of plow and pick commerce. The government shutdown, which has now lasted 27 days, is preventing industrial hemp from receiving the attention necessary for farmers to start cultivating this crop.
Sure, hemp is now legal in the United States, but the organization that is supposed to be writing up the regulations for the new system — the U.S. Department of Agriculture — is running on a barebones staff. Until the regulatory officials are permitted to get back to work, the plant is sort of being held hostage, with the ransom being a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although farmers in states with industrial hemp programs, like Kentucky and Oregon, are not likely to be affected by the shutdown, states that have to build their plans from the ground up could find themselves in a position of having to hustle once the government reopens to get farmers licensed before the planting season.
The hemp industry’s growth “will be a function of how states respond to this new legislation,” said Randy Fortenbery, an economics professor at Washington State University, according to PBS News.
Right now, the farming community is taking it on the chin because of Trump’s trade war with China. Many farmers are struggling to make an income with traditional crops, like corn and soybeans, but some seem to think that the addition of industrial hemp could make them more profitable. Considering that the United States imported more than $67 million of hemp seed and fiber in 2017, it makes perfect sense why farmers are eager for a piece. There is also a possibility that industrial hemp will rise to new heights in the next few years through the hemp-derived CBD market. Some of the latest reports show this sector is presently worth $30 million. But the money machine that is legal CBD could become a multi-billion dollar industry, some analysts predict.
The Expiration of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment
The government shutdown, which is now the longest in U.S. history, also threatens to jam up the state-legal cannabis industry. The longstanding protections known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, which prevents the Justice Department from using tax dollars to hassle and prosecute the medical marijuana community, died on Dec. 21 along with the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
Although unlikely, this means federal prosecutors can now go after those businesses and people associated with statewide medical marijuana programs. However, this amendment has expired during previous government shutdowns and the DOJ didn’t take action. Also, this temporary amendment is expected to be resurrected once a new budget is resolved, but, in the meantime, this lapse in the law does leave the cannabis industry open to enforcement. Still, with federal police agencies also feeling the squeeze from the shutdown, officials with the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) aren’t likely to unleash some kind of sporadic campaign to bust people adhering to state marijuana laws. The agency is more concerned with combatting the illicit drug trade that continues to thrive nationwide.
“We still have a responsibility for going after those who might be using this time to flood the streets” with illegal drugs, a DEA field agent told Reuters. “For us, it’s even a more important time to try to target as much as we can. We still have a safety obligation to the public … with the limited resources.”
There is hope that all of the frustration created by the shutdown will lead to good things. Congress is expected to address the marijuana issue at some point later this year. It’s no guarantee, but many seem to think that the United States will start to relax its policies over pot as a Democratic-controlled House presses the cause. But first, the government has to get back to work. It’s a showdown that does not appear likely to end anytime soon. With any luck, hemp farmers will get seed in the ground this year, but for now, the American government is working against them.
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