Policy & Regulation

The One Federal Agency That Treats THC as Something Other Than a Crime

By Jim Higdon, Co-Founder of Cornbread Hemp

Today, there’s a federal office that certifies consumer products containing THC, even though other parts of the federal government still think THC is a crime. The federal legal limit on hemp-derived THC is a mere 0.3 percent -- but that’s not zero. And for the first time since the beginning of the Drug War, this one office of the federal government is treating THC as something other than a crime -- the USDA National Organic Program. 

The USDA Organic Program certifies organic products as long as they come from hemp-derived full-spectrum CBD products made legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. And that’s a big deal. 

It’s a big deal for consumers because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to issue regulations on CBD, leaving the whole industry in an unregulated mess. In this unregulated vacuum, bad companies are making junk CBD products with no restraint. But with the USDA organic program, there’s now a federal entity willing to certify full-spectrum CBD products to its high standards. 

That’s why this is also a big deal for the politics of cannabis legalization in a broader sense. By certifying hemp extract products that contain THC, the USDA Organic Program has taken a huge step towards bringing cannabis into the mainstream. 

When the history of the Drug War is written in the future, the USDA Organic Program’s decision to accept full-spectrum hemp products as organic is a sign that the end of the Drug War is finally in sight. 

The USDA Organic Program began certifying full-spectrum CBD products as organic in 2019, and that was the first time the federal government had acknowledged a cannabis product as anything other than a crime. In that moment, the “gateway drug” theory and other scare tactics that have kept cannabis illegal for nearly a century were essentially destroyed. That’s why USDA Organic CBD products are such a big deal.

And yet, it was a quiet success, noticed only by consumers looking for quality CBD products. But this action by one program of the federal government was a huge step towards ending the notion that any product containing THC was criminal. 

The USDA’s National Organic Program regulates all consumer products that display the USDA Organic seal. That familiar circle logo seen in every grocery store’s produce section certifies that the product is free of pesticides, contamination, or GMO’s. Accounting for $10 billion in annual sales, it’s one of the federal government’s most popular programs.

For nearly two years now, the USDA Organic Program has been quietly certifying organic hemp-derived full-spectrum products, which contain THC. Unlike law enforcement agencies, the USDA Organic Program isn’t trying to keep THC off the streets. Instead, it’s telling consumers that this particular product that contains THC meets the high standard necessary to be certified organic. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the USDA endorses or supports products containing THC. In fact, the USDA doesn’t even do the certifying itself. It uses a network of third-party certifiers across the country that certify organic products to USDA standards. But by allowing those third-party certifiers to certify hemp-derived products that contain THC, the USDA National Organic Program has taken a huge step towards normalizing cannabis at the federal level. 

Since 2019, hemp farmers have been waiting for the FDA to categorize full-spectrum hemp extract as a dietary supplement, which would give more stability to the CBD market by providing much-needed regulatory oversight. But the FDA has been moving very slowly on this issue. The USDA Organic Program, by contrast, has moved quite quickly. 

And until the FDA decides to regulate full-spectrum hemp extract, the only consumer-facing federal regulation that exists for these products is the USDA organic seal. CBD products with the USDA organic seal are highly regulated. By contrast, CBD products without the seal are not regulated by the federal government at all -- not yet, anyway. 

Therefore, the USDA organic certification of CBD products is not just a way for consumers to find products that meet a certain level of quality; it is also a political act. The federal government has been fighting cannabis since 1937 -- it’s America’s longest war. But soon, thanks in part to the USDA Organic seal, that war will soon be over. 

Jim Higdon is Co-Founder of Cornbread Hemp. He is a native of Kentucky and holds degrees from Centre College, Brown University, and Columbia University. Jim published Cornbread Mafia in 2012, which led to a journalism career covering Kentucky for The Washington Post and cannabis policy for POLITICO. Jim used his expertise in the cannabis industry to make Cornbread Hemp a premium CBD brand with the most coveted hemp sources in the U.S., based in Kentucky. 

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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