With the passage of The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, legislators have officially distinguished hemp from marijuana, making hemp an agricultural product instead of a controlled substance. From this will come a multitude of changes. Hemp farmers can now buy crop insurance. Banks will grant loans to hemp-related businesses, and credit card companies will process payments to and from those businesses. Poised to grow wildly upon just such a revision of the law as this one, the industry built around CBD oil made from hemp will maybe now have its day. And so on. We cannot see in advance the full web of consequences the new bill will have, but we can still pick out the strands, the individual gains and drawbacks, that seem most likely.
The Plant Itself
But first, what is hemp? How does it differ from marijuana? While the scientific technicalities, like most matters of science, remain in dispute, lawmakers have chosen to define hemp as any plant in the cannabis genus that contains 0.3% THC or less by dry weight. THC is the compound that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties, so hemp must be put to uses other than expanding your consciousness, man. For example, it can be made into rope, canvas, body oils and lotions, pet food, bedding, clothing, plastic, paper, construction materials, and biodiesel. It grows fast and requires less pesticide per acre than most other crops, but it does need plenty of water and nutrient-rich soil, and the cost of its derivatives tends to be high because it must be harvested carefully. Perhaps not the miracle it has lately been proclaimed to be here and there on the Internet, hemp nonetheless seems to be worth cultivating, and its illegality by mere association with marijuana was long overdue to end.
As for marijuana, many people wonder whether species of cannabis with higher THC levels might also be legalized by the federal government now that the longstanding prohibition of the genus has eroded. The short answer, of course, is that no one knows. However, major shifts in the law tend to occur by degrees; it is not unreasonable to suppose that 2018’s farm bill, with its modest loosening of restrictions on cannabis, could make lawmakers in the future less averse to legalizing marijuana outright. That change would come with its own set of consequences—no doubt some good and some bad. Would the marijuana black market that has sprung up in Colorado, for instance, die away without the incentive to distribute weed in states where it is still illegal? Or would that market simply grow larger? Those questions must wait for another time, but, in any case, the recognition of hemp as a useful part of U.S. agriculture seems to reflect both good sense and the will of the people.
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