Cannabis containing extremely low amounts of the psychoactive compound THC, otherwise known as hemp, was officially removed from the Controlled Substances Act, the US Food and Drug Administration announced on Thursday.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 reclassified hemp—defined as cannabis containing less than 0.3 percent THC by weight—as an agricultural product, which means its production is now the purview of the FDA, rather than the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Although you can’t smoke hemp to catch a buzz, the plant has been used for centuries in products ranging from clothing to food. Hemp requires very little water to grow and is great for the soil, so it is widely considered an environmentally friendly alternative to many other crops.
These days, however, hemp is arguably best known as the source of CBD, a molecule found in cannabis that doesn’t give users a high, but a growing body of evidence suggests it might help alleviate symptoms for a wide variety of illnesses, ranging from anxiety and depression to arthritis and epilepsy.
Labelled the “new ‘it’ drug” by the Washington Post, CBD has come into vogue recently due to its claimed health benefits. Indeed, it’s legal in many states where medical and recreational weed remain illegal. Nevertheless, hemp has been federally illegal since 1970 due to its association with high-THC cannabis.
Although the new law legalizing hemp doesn’t formally legalize CBD on a federal level—it is still considered a Schedule I substance by the DEA—it is a significant step in that direction.
The new law appears to be an attempt by the FDA to regulate the burgeoning CBD market. Over the past several years, the FDA has issued a number of warnings to companies that market dietary supplements containing CBD on the grounds that they are not approved by the FDA to treat illnesses and often list inaccurate amounts of CBD on the label.
“We continue to be concerned at the number of drug claims being made about products not approved by the FDA that claim to contain CBD or other cannabis-derived compounds,” the FDA wrote in a statement. “The FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit...to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce.”
In June, the FDA approved the first drug that contains CBD for the treatment of seizures associated with rare forms of epilepsy. The agency said that “pathways remain available” for organizations seeking to introduce CBD-based food or medical products into the market, but that they will be subject to the same rigorous standards as other FDA-approved products.
In the meantime, the legalization of agricultural hemp will be a major boon to the hemp farmers who have been operating in a legal gray zone since the 2014 Farm Bill okayed its production in a narrow range of cases, including in states where it was legalized for research purposes.
While this allowed states such as Colorado to foster hemp production industries that are now worth over $800 million annually in the US, it also placed farmers in an awkward position. Even if hemp was legalized in their state, they still couldn’t engage in many of the activities needed to run a business that were regulated at the federal level, such as opening a bank account.
“Despite being able to legally participate in a 2014 Farm Bill-compliant hemp pilot program, every participating farmer took some sort of financial or otherwise substantial risk,” Colleen Lanier, the executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, said in a statement. “The hemp provision in the 2018 Farm Bill eliminates those risks in favor of full recognition as an agricultural commodity.”