The FDA is killing Kentucky’s most promising crop

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A year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, pioneers planted the first hemp crop at Clark’s Run Creek in Danville. Fast forward to 2018, which looked to be one of the most momentous years in the history of this storied crop. That’s because President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, and in doing so legalized hemp for the first time in 60 years.

It was a big victory for the commonwealth and for the man who delivered it, Senate Majority Leader McConnell. He had reopened the market for a crop that was cultivated by the great Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay.

Fellow Sens. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) also hailed the bill for giving “certainty and predictability to rural America.”

Twenty months on, no one would describe the hemp industry as “certain” or “predictable.” The price of hemp has plummeted 70-85% since May as long-anticipated food supplement regulation has failed to arrive from the Food and Drug Administration. This despite Congress’s clear intent to make hemp-derived products fully legal under the 2018 Farm Bill.

With upwards of 92% of Kentucky hemp grown for cannabidiol, or CBD, the ongoing market fallout has been ugly. A leading extractor filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing hemp CBD’s ongoing residence in an FDA-imposed “regulatory purgatory.” In an early 2020 letter to the Kentucky federal delegation, Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles wrote, “the bureaucratic paralysis … is hurting this new space in Kentucky agriculture.” He went on to presciently warn, “we are going to have a lot of hemp without a market to sell it in, and many farmers will struggle financially in part to the bureaucratic inaction in Washington, D.C.”

While hemp is cultivated for a variety of uses, it’s the CBD in its flowers that renders it a potential-worthy successor crop for tobacco farmers. And though the FDA immediately signaled that it considered CBD a prescription drug, and thus not legal for sale in foods or supplements, lawmakers sent clear signals to farmers and the FDA that this should only be a temporary state of affairs. After all, as stewards of the public health, the FDA had a responsibility to regulate the market they had rather than the market they wanted. As of April 2019, 26% of Americans reported having tried CBD for everything from reducing stress to helping with joint pain to managing opioid withdrawal.

While the CBD products show great economic promise, FDA inaction has stunted the growth of the market to mainly tinctures and salves, as many large food and supplement manufacturers as well as prominent retail chains are waiting for government guidance before entering the space.

The FDA has repeatedly declined to establish appropriate oversight for the CBD market and continues to absurdly cite the need for “more data” on dosages 20 times what most consumers are using.

In contrast, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency released clear guidance.

Stateside, consumers are out of luck when it comes to traceability, food safety, and labeling.

It does not have to be this way. Hemp growers and consumers deserve some basic protections, but it appears the FDA is sticking to the original 3- to 5-year schedule they laid out from the beginning.

FDA bureaucrats are subverting the will of Congress. There’s still time for our elected officials to reestablish their authority, but as more and more hemp farmers and manufacturers face the looming threat of bankruptcy, that time is quickly running out. Whether through statute (inclusion in further stimulus measures) or regulation, the industry needs detailed guidelines and aggressive timelines immediately, and it appears only Congress or the president can force the FDA to act.

Growers, extractors, and consumers are counting on their elected leaders to hold the unelected government officials accountable for their failures.

Alex Barnett is a hemp grower and also serves as Harrison County’s judge-executive.

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