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Law Enforcement-Pot or Hemp (copy)

This undated photo shows a seizure of 6,701 pounds cannabis that the owner says is industrial hemp but that Idaho authorities said was marijuana. (It turned out to industrial hemp.) Federal legalization for hemp has created a quandary for police as authorities lack the technology to distinguish marijuana from agricultural hemp at a roadside stop.

The 2018 version of the Farm Bill finally did right by hemp, legalizing the substance on the federal level and removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. (The portion of the bill that included this language was co-written by two unlikely compatriots in the U.S. Senate, Oregon's Ron Wyden and Kentucky's Mitch McConnell; this could be the only issue on which these two men see eye to eye.)

Before the bill passed, federal law included hemp on the Schedule I list of controlled substances, just like marijuana. This is the list that's reserved for substances that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency believes are both highly addictive and have no therapeutic value. Marijuana continues to be listed as a Schedule I drug, which is silly, but including hemp on the list was simply ludicrous.

Here's why: Nobody gets high smoking hemp, which has less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannobinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. 

Farmers have been interested in growing industrial hemp for years, because there's money to be made: The market for hemp goods has grown into an $820 million annual business, and the United States has become the world's largest consumer of hemp products, which include items such as soap, lotion, lip balm, food, clothing and paper products. 

The 2014 Farm Bill did include language authorizing industrial hemp pilot programs, and some brave Oregon farmers took advantage of those provisions. But the continued listing of hemp as a Schedule I drug left farmers leery about the prospects for growing hemp, especially if it meant getting unexpected visits from DEA agents who wanted to take a closer look at the back 40.

The language included in the 2018 bill finally cleared the path for farmers to plant hemp — but a couple of unexpected barriers remain.

First, as Wyden and McConnell recently noted, banks and other financial institutions have been reluctant to provide services to hemp farmers and producers. Many banks, the senators wrote in a letter to federal banking and regulatory agencies, are confused about the legality of hemp. Wyden and McConnell asked the agencies to offer guidance to financial institutions on this point. "Legal hemp businesses should be treated just like any other businesses and not discriminated against," the senators wrote. 

This hemp confusion is an echo of the difficulty legal marijuana businesses have had in obtaining banking services, but in those cases, financial institutions can point to the fact that pot still is illegal on the federal level. That's not the case anymore for hemp.

Another unexpected development has hampered the hemp industry: Truckers are now free to haul hemp from state to state, but they've been stopped (and sometimes arrested) by police who can't tell if they've intercepted a legal crop or a massive marijuana bust. 

That's because the only way to tell the difference is to measure the THC level of the plant. Drug-sniffing dogs will alert to both hemp and pot. And the only field tests available aren't sophisticated enough to specify whether a shipment is legal hemp or low-grade illegal pot. 

Complicating matters even more: Although hemp is legal on the federal level, it's still illegal in some states, including Idaho and Oklahoma.

Truckers are somewhat reluctant to haul loads that could land them behind bars. The Oregon Department of Agriculture issued a formal warning to hemp growers not to ship their crop across state lines.

This issue won't be resolved until someone comes up with the technology to quickly and accurately run a field test to determine the difference between hemp and marijuana. In fact, the DEA last month put out a request for information on private companies working in this field. It could make for a decent payday for the company that gets its product out first. In the meantime, industrial hemp once again faces additional bumps on the road to the marketplace. (mm)

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