written by Robert Eidus, March 2019 –
The 2018 Farm Bill, or Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, is recent United States legislation that reauthorizes many expenditures from the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as changing some existing legislation and introducing new laws.
The $867 billion Farm Bill was passed by strong bipartisan support in Congress and was signed into law by President Trump on December 20, 2018. Some of the new and changed legislation in this Farm Bill was the result of questionable back-room deals between the government and large corporate interests. This law includes traditional issues covered by the Farm Bill, such as food stamps and farm subsidies, as well as the new legislation covering hemp and Cannabidiol (CBD) as an agricultural product. This Farm Bill is designed to benefit large agribusiness and Big Pharma, not small farmers or the American people.
Some of the changes made to the farm subsidies portion of the Farm Bill are not transparent, and even some conservative Republicans have opposed these changes. Farm subsidies have always been the largest expenditure in the Farm Bill and the 2018 Farm Bill now allows non-farmers to get these subsides. The Washington Post reports that Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), one of two farmers in the Senate and a member of the Agricultural Committee, voted against the package over its expansion of Federal subsidies to more-distant relatives of farmers, such as cousins, nephews and nieces…. “I’m very disappointed the conferees decided to expand the loopholes on farm subsidies,” Grassley said before the vote. “I’ve been trying to make sure the people who get the subsidies are real farmers”. The Farm Bill does little to address the biggest problems in American agriculture: corporate farmers with inhumane treatment of animals, mono-culture cropping, and use of large machinery to produce less-nutritious mass-produced food in a way that destroys soil fertility. Thanks to corporate influence on our laws, we are spending billions of dollars only to have this unhealthy system continue with more loopholes than ever.
Funding for SNAP, better known as food stamps, is the second-largest expenditure in the Farm Bill. In previous years, funding for SNAP has been a major point of contention in congressional debates, with Democrats wanting to expand this important program and Republicans wanting to cut it. The 2018 Farm Bill preserves funding for this program, providing additional assistance to struggling families who need help putting food on the table. House Republicans gave in knowing that the White House “has signaled its intention to cut food stamps without approval from Congress,” according to the Washington Post.
The 2018 Farm Bill also provides funding for other existing farm programs, though these expenditures are minor in comparison to crop subsidies and SNAP. Support for farmers’ markets has been made permanent, so that supporters of local agriculture do not need to fight for funding in future Farm Bills. This support includes promotional funds for local farmers markets, which has potential to help organizations in North Carolina like ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) and our existing farmers markets. The bill also allocates research funds for organic farming. These funds can be used by agricultural research institutions such as NCSU in Raleigh, and also by local organic farmers, who may apply for these funds. Another new funding category is Farm Transition, which assists organizations working to train the next generation of farmers in an aging industry. The average age of farmers in the USA is 59.4 years. NCFarmlink, a NCSU Extension agency which works to connect young farmers with land and opportunities, plans to apply for these newly available funds, and if approved, may receive benefits for some of their projects (but not salaries or administrative costs.) The Farm Bill also includes permanent funding to assist veteran and minority farmers. Conservation programs continue in the 2018 Farm Bill, without the substantial changes that House Republicans initially wanted. These programs pay farmers to strengthen conservation efforts. My farm, Eagle Feather Organic Farm, is part of this program and has received a small amount to implement some common sense conservation measures. In my opinion, funding for this program needs to be greater to combat existing and ever-worsening environmental degradation.
I want to emphasize that the funding of farmers markets, organic research, transition farmers, veterans/minority farmers and the conservation programs are only a small part of the funding made available in the 2018 bill. Conventional large chemical-intensive agriculture gets the majority of farm funds for the next five years. Additionally, some of the recipients of these funds are not even farmers. Corporations that produce large amounts of unhealthy food will benefit most, while small diversified organic farmers who produce the best and healthiest food get a pittance. I am proud to be an organic farmer and believe organic farmers are not being treated fairly in funding. While this bill does not reverse the small positive changes that have been made in the past, it still does not provide anything close to the kind of funding our country needs in the future. Chemical companies have long promoted the myth that without chemicals, there would not be enough food to feed the world. This is a lie, because even with chemicals, millions of children go to sleep hungry each night while food waste and obesity are problems elsewhere. For thousands of years organic farmers have fed the world and can do so in the future.
One new feature of the 2018 Farm Bill is funding for legal hemp (Cannabis sativa). Cannabis is not usually part of the normal conversation around farm subsides, nutrition assistance, and crop insurance. However, the 2014 Farm Bill legalized hemp with a pilot research program that was championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from the great State of Kentucky, which in the past was a leader in hemp production prior to 1937. In 2018 McConnell again provided key and strong support, primarily on the issue of hemp.
Including a hemp program in the Farm Bill sounds progressive, but it is actually designed in a way that will cause problems. There are no grants or subsidies for hemp in the Farm Bill; instead, farmers must pay to be part of a hemp cultivation program. The slight of hand of this legislation is historic. In 1937, the USA took away a farmers’ right to cultivate this useful plant based on scare tactics, yellow journalism, and wrong science. Approximately 80 years later, farmers are being given back the right to grow, but only with massive restrictions. The natural right of a farmer to grow a crop without a license or permit should have been championed by conservative policy-makers instead of developing a bureaucratic government program. Is our government still relying on wrong science that suggests that that children will get high from smoking hemp, or that farmers will grow cannabis and hemp in the same field? Or is there another reason for this folly?
Cannabis sativa was one of the first plants to be cultivated by humans, and can be grown almost everywhere except the poles. At the turn of the 20th century, C. sativa was included in the US Pharmacopeia, which reported that this plant has been used for thousands of years as a medicine for child seizures. However, in 1937, moral panic over cannabis led Congress to overwhelmingly pass the Marihuana Tax Act, putting punitively high taxes on this important medicine. Furthermore, unlike most of the industrialized world, US law did not differentiate hemp from other cannabis plants, with a few short exceptions such as the Hemp for Victory program during World War II. When the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, cannabis and all cannabis-derived products were placed the Schedule 1 alongside harmful addictive drugs like heroin. This act defines Schedule 1 substances as having a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use, even under medical supervision. This means that Tetrahyrocannabinol (THC), discovered in Israel in the 1960’s, and CBD, discovered in Spain in 1990’s, were both under Schedule 1 in the United States. For those who would like a good book to read about the subject, I would recommend Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific by Martin A Lee.
The 2018 Farm Bill heavily regulates legal hemp cultivation and production. Under the new 2018 legislation, each “state department of agriculture must consult with the state’s governor and chief law enforcement officer to devise a plan that must be submitted to the Secretary of USDA. A state’s plan to license and regulate hemp can only commence once the Secretary of USDA approves that state’s plan. In states opting not to devise a hemp regulatory program, USDA will construct a regulatory program under which hemp cultivators in those states must apply for licenses and comply with a federal-run program. For a Congress set on removing Federal oversight by removing regulations, it is surprising to see a new law that involves heavy regulations, licenses, and fees, and increases the costs of government administration. Again, this fails the smell test.
Why in the world would our conservative Republican government want to create this administrative boondoggle? Why can’t American farmers join many countries in the rest of the world, where farmers are allowed to grow hemp as a typical agricultural commodity without severe regulation? Hemp has been used (with over 2,500 products and counting) for centuries, providing excellent high-quality long fibers for uses such as clothing, rope, paper, and building materials around the world. Remember, the US Constitution was written on hemp paper, the Betsy Ross flag was made of hemp fibers and our first President George Washington grew hemp plants. This type of hemp is grown in fields with plants very close to one another. The plant can be 20 feet tall and has a tap root that can extend 20 feet into the earth. Hemp is grown for the seeds, which have no THC or CBD, and for the stalk. All the plants in the field cross pollinate and the flowers are minimal. It is also a bio-accumulator, meaning that it absorbs toxic substances including heavy metals from the environment, and toxic solvents are often used to make products out of the hemp plant. Before 2014, no one around the world consumed hemp, with the exception of hemp seeds. Hemp Seed Oil (note the word “seed”) contains no THC or CBD, but was approved by a US Court in 2002 over US government objection.
In the 2014 Farm Bill, for the first time in history, US hemp could not contain more than 0.3 % THC to be legal in the US. Is it because McConnell doesn’t believe THC is medical? I can not believe that our government is so hypocritical. Why would anyone care if rope, paper, or fiber, had .03 %or .05 %THC? Do Republicans feel that people would smoke hemp and get high? It is impossible for a person to get “high” from smoking hemp, whether it be 0.3 percentage of THC or even sightly higher. It seems that the new 2018 Farm Bill goes to great lengths to create penalties for growing hemp and cannabis together. However, growing cannabis with high amounts of THC requires specific growing methods that are quite unlike the methods used for growing hemp. Cannabis grown for the flower and THC and CBD content is usually grown as a “sinsemilla” (“without seeds”) plant, where only female plants are grown with no males around. Cloning from a “mother plant” is the common propagation method now for THC-content cannabis, rather than growing from seed. On the other hand, hemp is grown by seed and for seed and fiber, with male and female plants together in the same field. Hemp and cannabis would never be grown together, ever. So what is the back story our government is not telling us?
On October 7, 2003, the US Federal Government issued patent # 6630507, titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.” The inventors in this patent were Aidan Hampson, Julius Axelrod, and Maurizio Grimaldi. Hampson and Grimaldi were scientists with the National Institute for Mental Health, and Axelrod was a scientist with the National Institute of Health. This patent was granted to the United States of America as represented by the Department of Health and Human Services. The application goes to great lengths to show the medical benefits of CBDs in this plant in order to get a US government patent. Granting this patent to the United States means that companies must apply to be allowed to use this technology patented by the NIH for research, and may also apply for license to create drugs using this technology. 15 years after this patent, the United States had granted only a few companies license to use the technology in Patent 6630507. One of them was GW Pharmaceuticals, a British big Pharma company. Several years, GW Pharmaceuticals developed a CBD-based epilepsy drug they called Epidiolex for two forms of childhood onset epilepsy. They submitted this drug to the United States FDA for approval in October 2017, and in June 2018, Epidiolex became the very first drug containing an active marijuana-derived ingredient ever approved by the FDA. In September 2018, the United States DEA made an exception to existing classification, and placed Epidoex in the Schedule 5 controlled substance category, the lowest level. This category contains drugs with a proven medical use and low potential for abuse. However, other cannabidiol products were not reclassified.
As a recent NY Times article stated, “In June , the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a cannabidiol-based drug called Epidiolex as a treatment for severe forms of epilepsy, representing the first government-sanctioned medical use for CBD”. (Remember, of course, that Cannabis sativa was legal at the beginning of the 20th century!). GW Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Epidiolex, stands to profit hugely from this drug. Some sources are reporting that Epidiolex will cost around $32,500 per patient per year. As the Alliance for Natural Health USA points out, the FDA at any time can demand that all other forms of CBD be taken off the shelves, after which the only legal source of this medicine would be an outrageously overpriced drug that doesn’t even have the synergistic benefits of other compounds naturally occurring in the cannabis plant. As a result, besides the outrageous cost, a person taking Epidiolex may experience many harmful side effects like infections, rashes, depressed appetite, sleep problems, and elevated liver problems that they would not experience by consuming cannabis. Is this Big Pharma’s answer to putting profits over child safety?
Was there impropriety with the secrecy and influence in having GW Pharmaceuticals (GW), a British company, become the first and exclusive approved manufacturer of a CBD drug? Also unusual is that GW was given UK Government permission to grow Cannabis for research in England, an exemption to UK laws (Cannabis sativa is illegal in England) The research done for this product, as reported in the NY Times, was done by the NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, and led by the director, Dr. Orrin Devinsky. He was quoted as saying, the drug’s effect was “not miraculous.” To be clear, the research was funded and produced by Big Pharma. If industry produces the research and not the government, they are under no obligation to release their findings to the public so we have no way of knowing the actual effects of these drugs.
Why was this association and the research about this program not widely publicized? Why the secrecy? Where is this research housed, and how can the public access it? This will be a win for Big Pharma, which historically pushes for single-molecule compounds, which favor patentable isolated compounds over whole plant synergies. The key word here is patentable. The FDA’s single-molecule tilt reflects a cultural and political bias that privileges corporate pharmaceuticals.
This has become a classic case involving back room deals that will benefit a company to receive huge profits . In this case it is CBD products, where the industry writes the rules to benefit their interests. What got us here is a complex web of circumstances that led to our current state of affairs. The start of the path is the “Big Lie” of 1937 about the science of Cannabis sativa. When Israeli researchers discovered THC in 1960’s, growing for medicine was moved forward. A step backwards came in 1970 when cannabis was listed as a Schedule 1 drug in the US, based on the outrageous lie that Cannabis sativa has no medical value. This would be countered in the 1990s after Spanish researchers discovering CBD, followed by the historic California law in 1996 making medical cannabis legal in the state. (33 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes and 10 states permit adult use). In the early 1990s, Israeli researchers discovered that cannabinoids naturally occur in the human body, giving rise to research on the endocannabinoid system that is currently going on today all over the world.
A big leap for CBD medicine came in the 2010s when Dr. Gupta recorded for CNN the incredible story of Charlotte Figi and the Charlotte’s Web strain of cannabis from Colorado.
This real-life case proved the US Pharmacopoeia at the beginning of the 20th century was right – that this plant is a powerful medicine for children suffering from epilepsy. Since then, many people from different states have brought their children to Colorado to get Charlotte’s Web from the Stanley Brothers in Colorado Springs, even going so far as to establish residency in Colorado in order to comply with the state’s restrictions on the medicine. To combat this move by parents and children moving to Colorado, 11 Republican states (Legislature and Governor) in 2015 passed their own hemp oil legislation. In North Carolina, the Hemp Oil Act was brought up and passed the same day in the House, sent to the Senate the next day, and sent to the Governor to be signed into law on the third day. It took all of three days.
To grow a hemp product in North Carolina, a farmer is required to be approved by NC Hemp Commission, purchase seeds from approved vendors, do the research for the crop for the government, get the crop batch lab tested, have a buyer before the program for each farmer, and destroy the crop if the lab test is higher than .03 THC. That is really crazy. Furthermore, state cannabis programs like this are still technically illegal under federal law. So, as John Hudak from the Brookings Institute points out, CBD is only made legal under very specific circumstances. It is not true that all CBD products have not been removed from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. To be legal, cannabis products must be produced by a licensed grower in a manner that is consistent with the Farm Bill as well as other federal and state regulations. So far, the only cannabis-derived product that meets all these requirements is one specific single-molecule drug that has been approved by the FDA: GW Pharmaceutical’s Epidiolex. There are numerous misunderstandings about the legality of CBD products, and, under the new Farm Bill, CBD products will be broadly available. But this does not mean all CBD products are legal moving forward.
The government has not heeded the lessons from research developments, such as the discovery of THC and CBD, and the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. They have not used the research findings which show that cannabis is a safe and effective drug that all Americans should have access to. Instead, it seems that the government and the pharmaceutical industry have used lies, cover-ups, and back-room deals to ensure that this important medicine just benefits the rich and powerful people and corporations in this country, with private companies doing the research and this research not being verified by third parties. As FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stated, “In view of the proliferation of products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived substances, the FDA will advance new steps to better define our public health obligations in this area….In particular, we continue to be concerned at the number of drug claims being made about products not approved by the FDA that claim to contain CBD or other cannabis-derived compounds. Among other things, the FDA requires a cannabis product (hemp-derived or otherwise) that is marketed with a claim of therapeutic benefit, or with any other disease claim, to be approved by the FDA for its intended use before it may be introduced into interstate commerce.”
As CBD products become increasingly popular among the public despite their murky legal status, it is important for us to keep several questions in mind. Why did the US government decide to schedule only this drug (Epidiolex) as Schedule 5, despite the fact that CBD is still technically Schedule 1? What are the implications of this contradiction between this exclusive and expensive approved medicinal use and a law that says that CBD has no medical benefit? This is contradictory to the government patent. How did this happen without public transparency? One branch of the US government approved Patent 6630507, another branch of the US government (the Department of Health) holds the patent, and yet another branch (the FDA) grants rights to corporations to utilize the technology in the patent. And yet still another branch, the Justice Department, can potentially enforce laws prohibiting any other use of Cannabis-derived medicine. Why can’t we acknowledge that the we made a mistake in 1937 and allow this useful plant to come back into our Pharmacopeia? This is another example of special treatment given to corporate allopathic medicine in the name of profits without transparency. It by has been shown by science professionals and thousands of years of use that the benefits of this natural medicine could otherwise be realized by millions of people, at very low cost, were it not for legislation and unfair business practices that favor the corporate elite and the one percent.
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