In testimony Thursday before a Senate agriculture committee, a representative of the hemp industry requested USDA not bar felons from working as employees in the burgeoning sector.
In the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018—also known as the 2018 Farm Bill—Congress removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), reflecting a sea change in U.S. cannabis policy.
But the new law imposed certain restrictions on individuals convicted within the past 10 years of a felony for a controlled substance. These individuals, hemp advocates said, are ineligible to produce hemp under state, tribal or federal regulations.
Hemp groups have expressed concern that USDA will apply the prohibition too broadly, curtailing opportunities for individuals with criminal pasts to be part of a growing industry.
Erica Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association (NHA), said the prohibition in the 2018 Farm Bill should only apply to “applicants for licenses” and not “employees of hemp operations.”
“The principle behind the criminal justice system is rehabilitation and for those who have served their time to be able to assimilate back into society and lead productive lives,” Stark observed in prepared remarks before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “With the goal of making hemp a widely used commodity crop, and there being no such restrictions or bans for anyone who works in the industries of corn, soybeans and the like, NHA wishes to see this right extended to all non-permit holders.”
Stark testified during a hearing focused on hemp production and the 2018 Farm Bill. Others who testified included representatives from EPA, FDA and USDA, as well as a Kentucky farmer and the tribal chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.
USDA, which is currently working on promulgating regulations for the production of hemp, declined to comment for this article.
"The draft rule has been submitted for interagency review," an agency spokesperson said. "We are unable to comment on the substance of the draft rule while it is under review."
NHA is among several organizations in favor of limiting the felony ban. In a June 14 letter to USDA General Counsel Stephen Vaden, four groups urged “USDA to implement the hemp felony ban to apply only to individuals seeking a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with a state, tribal or USDA plan.”
The letter was signed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, Drug Policy Alliance, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and Vote Hemp.
“Although Congress specified that the hemp felony ban should apply to producers, there are many occupational roles that could be interpreted to be involved in hemp production,” the letter stated. “Should the provision be interpreted in an inappropriately broad manner, state agricultural authorities and the private sector would be required to conduct costly background checks, screen and track workers involved in hemp production operations such as cultivation, processing, packaging and transporting hemp products.”
Interpreting the felony ban inappropriately, the groups cautioned, “would impose unnecessary hardship on states, the agriculture industry and individual farmers to comply with the rule.”
Some people with criminal histories don’t have to worry about the felony provision because it excludes individuals growing hemp lawfully under a pilot program authorized under the Agricultural Act of 2014 before the 2018 Farm Bill was enacted.
“We believe a fair reading of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 and the accompanying conference report,” the four groups wrote to Vaden, “indicates that Congress intended for this provision to only apply to individuals seeking a license or authorization to produce hemp in accordance with a state, tribal or USDA plan.”