The US legalized hemp late last year, and the industry since then has expanded. Hemp, which is derived from cannabis plants, is a natural fiber that can commercially be used for paper, textiles, clothing, food and more. Demand for it has skyrocketed recently thanks to the popularity of CBD, a compound in cannabis commonly used as a health aid.
Now, a few months after federal legalization, the hemp industry is facing an unexpected development- law enforcement officers can’t tell the difference between hemp and marijuana.
Truckers are now free to transport hemp across state lines. However, many have reportedly been stopped and even arrested, by police who cannot tell whether they have encountered a haul of agricultural crops or a cache of drugs.
The issue is that marijuana, a federally illegal substance in the US, looks and smells exactly like hemp, a newly legal substance. The only way to distinguish between the two is to test the levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Officers don’t have the testing technology to do this on the spot.
There are two main compounds in cannabis, THC, and CBD. THC is responsible for that “high” sensation, while CBD is what makes users feel relaxed. Marijuana contains enough THC to get users high, while hemp has almost none. Current field tests that officers have can detect THC, but aren’t sophisticated enough to determine whether a shipment is legal hemp or low-quality weed.
This is proving to be a significant problem, both for the trucking industry transporting hemp and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA put out a request earlier in March for information on private companies with the technology to do more sensitive field tests to distinguish between hemp and marijuana. Barbara Carreno, DEA spokeswoman stated, “Nobody wants to see someone in jail for a month for the wrong thing. To enable us to do our job, we have to have something that can help us distinguish.”
The exploding hemp industry relies on interstate trucking to transport the product. Hemp from farms is taken to processing labs to extract CBD, which is then resold to be used in a number of different industries such as makeup and pet food.
Kentucky and Oregon are major producers of hemp, with much of what they grow processed in Colorado. The hemp is often transported through Oklahoma and Idaho, which is where arrests have occurred. Hemp is still illegal under Idaho law, although lawmakers are trying to pass state legalization. They’re not the only state trying to play catch up. States with hemp programs still have to get them approved by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which can take months.
Lawmakers, the hemp industry and those transporting the product are all hoping the USDA will quickly work to set up regulations around hemp shipments. That way local law enforcement could rely on state agricultural or lab certificates rather than faulty THC field tests. Police could allow a suspicious load to pass without arrest and if hemp samples come back with high levels of THC, authorities could pursue the grower or shipper after the fact.
As of right now, the future of transporting hemp is uncertain. Many hemp producers and transportation companies are wary of crossing state lines, especially in states where state legislature contradicts the federal legalization. This is a thriving industry though, and it’s only a matter of time until the USDA and DEA fix the issues.