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US regulators take steps to boost hemp, CBD markets

USDA delays some requirements for growers, FDA seeks more data on cannabidiol products

by Britt E. Erickson
March 6, 2020

Hemp plant with leaves and buds.
Credit: North Carolina State University
The USDA is delaying some requirements for hemp growers for the 2020 season to prevent testing bottlenecks.

The US hemp and cannabidiol (CBD) industries have been raising concerns for several months about potential bottlenecks related to testing hemp for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component in cannabis. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is listening and took steps on Feb. 27 to remedy the situation.

At issue is the USDA’s interim rule for growing hemp, released in October 2019, which requires hemp testing labs to be registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Hemp plants in the US can contain no more than 0.3% THC. Plants that test above that threshold, so-called “hot” hemp, are considered a controlled substance and must be disposed of by law enforcement or a DEA-registered distributor.

Acknowledging that “there is currently insufficient capacity in the United States for testing of hemp and disposing of non-compliant plants,” the USDA announced that it is delaying enforcement of some requirements in the interim rule “until October 31, 2021, or publication of the final rule, whichever occurs first.”

In particular, the USDA is delaying the requirements that hemp testing labs be DEA-registered and that hot hemp be disposed of by law enforcement or a DEA-registered distributor. “We have learned that these provisions will serve as a significant hindrance to the growth of a domestic hemp market at this nascent stage,” the USDA says. For now, the agency is allowing farmers to dispose of hot hemp plants on their land in a way that makes the plants non-retrievable and non-ingestible, such as through mulching, burying, or burning, the USDA says.

The hemp industry welcomes the announcement but plans to push for eliminating the requirements permanently. “We continue to believe that DEA certification of labs is unnecessary, and will use this time period to renew our arguments,” the US Hemp Roundtable, a coalition of hemp and CBD companies and organizations, says in a statement. The group is also urging the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to adopt a regulatory pathway for the sale of hemp-derived CBD products.

The FDA released a report to Congress on March 5, claiming that more data are needed before the agency can regulate products containing CBD, including dietary supplements, food, and cosmetics. Coinciding with the report, the FDA reopened the public comment period for stakeholders to provide the agency with data on the risks and benefits of CBD products that have not been approved by the FDA as drugs.

“The agency’s delay results in the worst of both worlds—U.S. hemp farmers are denied profitable markets for their crops, while unregulated products continue to proliferate, with no safeguards for public health and safety,” the US Hemp Roundtable says in a message to its members.

“This is more of the same from FDA: All words and no action,” Daniel Fabricant, president and CEO of the Natural Products Association, says in a statement. The association, a trade group representing the natural products industry, is calling for the FDA to set a safe level for daily CBD consumption. “The longer FDA waits to regulate the CBD industry the greater chance we have of risking another public health crisis,” Fabricant says.


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