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Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity

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Publication Date: March 2007

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL32725

Topic: Agriculture, forestry and fishing (Crop management)


In February 2007, legislation was introduced that would open the way for commercial cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States (H.R. 1009; in the 109th Congress, H.R. 3037). The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2007 would amend Section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802(16)) to specify that the term "marijuana" does not include industrial hemp. Such a change would mean that state law would determine whether producers could grow and process industrial hemp within state borders, under state regulations. Currently, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) determines whether any industrial hemp production authorized under a state statute will be permitted, and it enforces standards governing the security conditions under which the crop must be grown.

The terms "hemp" and "industrial hemp" refer to varieties of Cannabis sativa characterized by low levels of the primary psychoactive chemical (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC) in their leaves and flowers. Although total industrial hemp acreage worldwide is small, farmers in more than 30 countries grow the crop commercially for fiber, seed, and oil for use in a variety of industrial and consumer products, including food.

Because of the psychoactive properties of some varieties of Cannabis (which can grow virtually anywhere in the United States), the federal government first began to control production in the late 1930s under the Marihuana Tax Act (50 Stat. 551). In 1970, production of all varieties of Cannabis, regardless of THC content and intended use, became tightly regulated under the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. sections 802 et seq.). As a result, all hemp or hemp-containing products sold in the United States must now be imported or manufactured from imported hemp.

In the early 1990s a sustained resurgence of interest in allowing commercial cultivation of industrial hemp began in the United States. Farmers in regions of the country that are highly dependent upon a single crop, such as tobacco or wheat, have shown interest in its potential as a high-value alternative crop, although the economic studies conducted so far paint a mixed profitability picture. Over the past decade, more than 25 states have passed laws calling for economic or production studies.

The DEA has been unwilling to grant licenses for growing small plots of hemp for research purposes (as authorized by some state laws), and beginning in 1999 it made an effort, which it ultimately abandoned in 2004 following an unfavorable court decision, to ban imports of hemp food products that could contain trace amounts of THC. DEA officials express the concern that commercial cultivation would increase the likelihood of covert production of high-THC marijuana, significantly complicate DEA's surveillance and enforcement activities, and send the wrong message to the American public concerning the government's position on drugs.

This report will be updated if events warrant.