The U.S. hemp industry is expecting business to expand and investors to beckon after Congress on Wednesday passed farm legislation that included a provision to legalize and regulate the plant under the Department of Agriculture.
"This is a monumental bill for hemp farming," said Lauren Stansbury, communications director for Vote Hemp, a national lobbying organization for hemp producers.
The bill, awaiting President Trump's signature, opens the door to state-by-state regulation, removes hemp, which is part of the cannabis plant family, from the federal enforcement of outlaw drugs and gives hemp farmers access to banking, crop insurance and federal grants, experts said.
That could open the industry, which produces therapeutic cannabidiol (CBD), fabric, rope and even ethanol, to a wave of investment.
"This is a cultural shift," said Bomi Joseph, creator of CBD product ImmunAG. "CBD is going to explode. I think the market is going to triple in size."
Cannabidiol has been touted as an elixir that can do everything from cure cancer to tame menstrual cramps, but so far the U.S. Food and Drug administration has only approved a specific formulation of CBD to treat seizures associated with rare forms of epilepsy.
The bill "puts forth a whole-plant definition of hemp including extracts," said Stansbury, with Vote Hemp. "We’re not just talking stalk or flower. Any product derived from hemp is a legal consumer product."
But for now at least the FDA could stand in the way.
It states that CBD products can't be sold as dietary supplements and that those making medical claims are illegal without its approval. However, the FDA aims its most serious enforcement efforts at products "marketed for serious or life threatening diseases," according to a statement.
And the dietary supplement exclusion could be revisited, the administration has stated. "The FDA could allow it to be regulated as food and dietary supplements," said Shawn Hauser of the Colorado law firm Vicente Sederberg, which worked on the hemp legislation.
Under the bill, CBD products derived from hemp and containing 0.3 percent or less of the high-inducing cannabinoid THC will be considered legitimate.
"It would no longer be controlled under the DEA's purview," said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger.
Cannabis market data firm New Frontier recently projected that the American CBD market could reach $2.3 billion in revenues by 2022. Hemp-derived CBD (it can also come from other forms of cannabis) was expected to be worth more than half that total.
"The recent Farm Bill will have significant impacts on this channel as companies begin moving into mass market retailers now that hemp will be removed from the Controlled Substances Act," Nick Olsen, a spokesman for New Frontier, said via email.
The organization Vote Hemp said in summer that U.S. revenues for the total plant in 2017 were at a little more than $800 annually and growing.
Now hemp enthusiasts expect to see more CBD and hemp-derived products at mass market retailers in the months and years to come. "This bill will make hemp explode," said Erica McBride, executive director of the National Hemp Association.
The legislation will also allow transportation across state lines, academic research, production on tribal lands, and state regulation, including prohibition. In fact, experts expect it to take about a year for states to work out their own regulations or allow federal law to supersede.
They said about 40 states already had some form of hemp pilot program. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) backed the hemp provision vociferously, saying that a pilot program in his own home state has "become a booming success."
"Its uses range from food and pharmaceuticals to home insulation and automotive parts," he said in a statement. "Enthusiastic farmers quickly applied to plant the crop in their fields. Entrepreneurs opened businesses selling hemp-based products. And consumers got to enjoy a whole new set of goods featuring American-made hemp."
Not everyone is so excited.
The Drug Policy Alliance, one of the nation's most potent champions for cannabis legalization, didn't take a position on the farm bill. The group tried to strike language that prohibits folks with drug convictions from working in the industry for 10 years.
"We’re not celebrating," said Grant Smith, the alliance's deputy director of national affairs. "For people who have a recent conviction it's essentially a de facto ban."
"There’s all this talk of criminal justice reform and here we have this brand new legalized industry that could create a lot of new jobs in areas where they're badly needed," he said. "They're going to be deterred from contributing to our economy. It doesn't make any sense."