Meg Nanna

2019 was arguably the biggest year for hemp since 1937, when it, along with all forms of cannabis, was first criminalized. The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act has had explosive, though uneven, results.

As with cannabis, rules and regulations for hemp vary from state to state. Federal regulators and law enforcement are overreaching, and the regulatory framework needed to allow the industry to grow and thrive has been painfully slow in coming. And then there’s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

But let’s back up: Hemp is a non-psychoactive variation of the same cannabis that’s offered in dispensaries, but its most popular byproduct is CBD. Usually hemp contains no more than the federal limit of .3 percent of THC. Any more would make it “marijuana,” a federally controlled Schedule One substance.

While CBD remains the most valuable part of the plant for now, it’s worth remembering that hemp is a wonder crop with the capacity to produce and replace thousands of products (many of them petroleum based) with lower carbon and chemical footprints.

But those aren’t the hemp-related products you’ll find at most any minimart, grocery store, or online shop—it’s CBD. Analysts are bullish on the future of this cannabinoid, with one report predicting that retail sales this year could reach $1.3 billion, an increase of 133 percent over 2018. Another report predicts CBD sales hitting over $23 billion by 2023.

This information comes with some major caveats. CBD turned up in every conceivable product this year (some dubious AF, some with spurious claims of benefits), and often in states that haven’t established regulations or whose laws vary wildly.

Cannabis website Leafly compiled a list of CBD legality by state, looking at rules concerning “unlicensed CBD products only.” Idaho, Iowa, and South Dakota have made CBD illegal in any form, while Alabama has virtually no restrictions. In Colorado, it can’t be in baked goods, Kentucky doesn’t allow CBD in tea, and in Mississippi it must be a 20:1 CBD/THC ratio.

2019 also saw an increase in crackdowns by the FDA. The agency has warned companies about making claims regarding the benefits of their CBD products, and the manner in which they are sold (better known as violations of interstate commerce). They recently sent out letters to 15 companies warning them that their CBD-infused lip balms, pet treats, vape pens, body creams, gummies, flavored hemp oils, tinctures, dietary supplements, and non-dairy creamers were out of compliance.

The FDA has also publicly questioned how safe CBD is, or if it even is safe. In November, they said “there are many unanswered questions about the science... and quality of products containing CBD,” and they “cannot conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe among qualified experts for its use in human or animal food.”

None of this is slowing down investment. Hemp production has seen a 700 percent increase, from 9,649 acres across 15 states in 2016 to 78,176 acres across 24 states, according to reports from Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocating for more hemp farming in the US. There’s also rare bipartisan support in DC to pressure the FDA to issue rules for the nascent hemp industry designed to support growth. The FDA has offered vague assurances they’re in motion—but critics remain doubtful.

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This year also saw the feds telling banks they were no longer required to report their customers who cultivate hemp to the Treasury Department, much to the relief of farmers all over the US.

And because law enforcement around the country didn’t have the resources or expertise to definitively prove if a suspect possessed cannabis or hemp, hundreds of simple possession cases were dismissed or never filed by district attorneys. Which is good.