USDA organic hemp? Yes. No. Maybe.

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One of seven USDA certified Organic industrial hemp crops in the U.S., grown in Colorado by CBDRx, a Longmont hemp company.
Courtesy of CBDRx

Considered dangerous drugs by the federal government, marijuana and industrial hemp are still listed in the Controlled Substances Act as Schedule I drugs. While the federal government has issued legislative promises to not spend money in prosecution of cannabis activity in states in which it is legal, it has been firm in withholding any actions of endorsement by federal departments, leading many to assume that an organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is precluded by federal law.

But on Jan. 27, 2016, CBDRx, a Colorado-based hemp company, announced that it received two USDA organic certifications for its more than 130 acres of industrial hemp, giving it two of only seven in the country and the only two in Colorado.

CBDRx Director of Quality Assurance Natalie Mondine oversaw the application process, which she says was no different than that for any other crop. She reached out to two third party National Organic Program (NOP) certifying companies, one of which declined to offer an endorsement for hemp, while the other, OneCert out of Nebraska, eventually granted the certification.

For CBDRx this is occasion for celebration.

“We pride ourselves on our quality, trying to be above everyone else in the industry,” Mondine says. “So for us to get an organic certification for our farm is the coolest thing we could have done. And this sets us apart. The product that we are trying to make is really a health product, and you can’t make a product like that and have it made with pesticides.”

This isn’t just an affirmation of the company’s organic practices. Being the first farm in Colorado to get the certification offers a huge market advantage that distinguishes it from the competition with all of the brand power of “USDA Organic.”

On Feb. 16, 2016 the USDA issued an instruction to NOP certifiers to stop issuing certifications to industrial hemp crops in the U.S., thus solidifying that market advantage. The instruction cites two reasons for ceasing certification: concerns about the safety of industrial hemp for consumption and its yet undetermined legal status.

Regardless, the USDA will continue to allow NOPs to certify international production of hemp to be imported into the U.S. for domestic processing. In a meeting a few days ago with the Accredited Certifiers Association board of directors, USDA staff asserted that hemp products coming into the U.S. that were certified in another country will continue to be acceptable.

Hemp has been imported into the U.S. for decades to the tune of $500 million a year. All the while the USDA gave hemp its organic blessing as NOP companies granted certifications to both international hemp crops and to hemp products made in the U.S.

The USDA did not have the authority to sanction the certification of domestically grown hemp in the first place, and it is arguable that it has the authority to stop said certification, especially while it continues to offer them internationally.

As for CBDRx and the other farms with organic labeling, the USDA does not plan to meddle with what is already issued, at least until they have the opportunity to consult with federal partners to interpret the 2014 Farm Bill. For now, the first-to-market advantage for CBDRx and the five other farms, is better termed the only-to-market advantage.

The Farm Bill referred to by the USDA establishes the legal definition of industrial hemp as the plant Cannabis sativa with a THC concentration of equal to or less than .03 percent, distinguishing hemp from cannabis with a higher quantity of THC, which is defined as marijuana.

While the differentiation exists, it is yet to be applied practically. No interpretation of the Farm Bill will change the fact that both substances are federally illegal and, furthermore, are considered dangerous and addictive substances. That will take federal legislation.

The USDA has created an unequal marketplace for domestic hemp producers, unfounded safety concerns about the use of industrial hemp and bolstered an international agricultural industry at the cost of one in their home country.

Why? Because of the politics of cannabis. It is time to remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act.

It is also time to address the use of pesticides on marijuana in a meaningful way. Under-regulated pesticide use on the marijuana side of the cannabis family has posed a serious public health risk to consumers in Colorado. Last week the Colorado DEA issued a hold on marijuana due to pesticide use, the first time they have employed that option since it became available.

The same week, the Colorado Senate considered a bill to begin a state-sanctioned organic certification program for cannabis, as regulators look for ways to both fix the pesticide problem and to maintain the credibility offered to consumers in organic labeling.

In the midst of this maelstrom of safety concerns and legal gray areas, the need for a state-regulated organics program becomes clear, although it is regrettable that Colorado must spend the time, energy and money to re-create an asset that ought to already be available by way of the USDA.