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With the signing of the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (aka the 2018 Farm Bill) last month, the federal government now fully recognizes hemp as a legal agricultural product. But while many reports are claiming that this means that cannabidiol (CBD) is also legal, that’s not quite correct. With a lot of misinformation flying around, and contradictions between state and federal laws, things are admittedly somewhat confusing. Let’s try to sort things out by answering some questions about hemp, CBD, and what has recently changed in federal law.
When it comes to plants, hemp is one of mankind’s most revolutionary and useful plants. Defining hemp is somewhat tricky, but in a nutshell, hemp is a variety of cannabis that is technically a member of the species sativa. Sativa generally grows around 10-15 feet tall, and has a very fibrous trunk to support its weight. To be defined as hemp in the United States and elsewhere, cannabis plants must contain less than 0.3% THC by weight. In the US however, heavy regulation and taxation of hemp dating back to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 and subsequently through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 all but rendered hemp farming in the US a legal impossibility for most of the past century.
In recent years however, with many states’ legalization of cannabis and a burgeoning multibillion-dollar cannabis industry, US farmers had increasingly lobbied to remove federal restrictions against growing hemp. The Agricultural Act of 2014 (aka the 2014 Farm Bill) signed by President Obama set the stage for this by loosening restrictions on hemp, allowing universities and state agriculture departments to grow it for research purposes. Now, the 2018 Farm Bill opens those gates more broadly, allowing licensed farmers to grow hemp and transport it across state lines based on agreements and regulations to be established between states and the federal government.
Along with THC, cannabidiol (CBD) is one of more than a hundred “phytocannabinoids” contained in the Cannabis plant. Relative to the amount of THC in marijuana grown for recreational use, the amount of CBD is trivial, with the proportion of THC to CBD widening over the past several decades. The breeding of cannabis strains with more THC and less CBD has been in response to recreational consumer demand. More THC means more of a “high,” whereas CBD doesn’t have any psychoactive effects and may mitigate the high produced by THC. So, for the most part, CBD-laden marijuana has not been what recreational users are looking for.
Recently, patients have been increasingly seeking out high-CBD varieties for treatment of conditions ranging from severe epilepsy and multiple sclerosis to anxiety and cancer pain. It has long been known to have useful antispasmodic, anti-epileptic, anti-anxiety, and antipsychotic properties. Although CBD lacks noticeable psychoactive effects when taken alone, it has a calming, sedative effect cutting down on the anxiety, paranoia, and memory impairment that many users find unpleasant or debilitating with marijuana. CBD-rich strains accordingly have particular appeal to older users and medical patients who are uncomfortable with the THC high.
What is Legal and What is not!?
Here’s where things can get confusing. More and more states have legalized cannabis and its constituents including THC and CBD for either medical or recreational use (several states have specifically legalized CBD products, but not THC or cannabis in general). But the federal government has held firm, keeping marijuana illegal as a Schedule I drug (defined as having no accepted medical use in the US, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse) per the Drug Enforcement Agency’s classification of controlled substances.
Now, with the passing of the new 2018 Farm Bill, hemp and hemp-derived products have been officially removed from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act, such that they are no longer subject to Schedule I status. Meaning that so long as CBD is extracted from hemp and completely pure (with less than .3% THC) and grown by licensed farmers in accordance with state and federal regulations, it is legal as a hemp product. There are still details to be negotiated with the FDA and DEA about CBD with the intent of large-scale human consumption as a food additive, dietary supplement, or medication. Regardless, this is a HUGE first step in the right direction!