September 10th, 2018

Federally Legal Cannabis: Something You Probably Did Not Know

Federal Government and CannabisUntil recently, I believed, as most people do, that the growing of the cannabis sativa plant, although legalized in some states, remains illegal under Federal law. It turns out that Federal law does permit the growing of the plant, under certain circumstances, if the THC content is less than .3% – a product which is called “industrial hemp.” Why do we have federally legal cannabis and how did this happen?

In addition to the psychoactive products derived from the resin and leaves of the cannabis plant, its fibrous stalk can be used for rope and fabric, and bio-fuels. “Hemp,” one of the oldest terms for cannabis, is now used by some when referring to the non-psychoactive plant elements, with the term “marijuana” being used for the psychoactive elements. The non-psychoactive products were so important to the commercial wellbeing of colonial America, that the first law ever written in the country about cannabis established a fine for those farmers who did not meet their growth quota of the plant.

The once vibrant industry in this country declined with the rise of cotton and rayon, and the appearance of cheap imported hemp. The beginning of the end occurred in 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana (sic) Tax Act. The coup de grace was the 1970 decision to place it in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This is limited to substances which have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value. This better describes tobacco and alcohol, which were notably omitted from that designation. After that time, rope and fabric made of hemp could still be purchased in this country but only if it was manufactured outside of the U.S. Now, because of the commercial value of hemp and its environmental friendliness compared to corn, agricultural interest developed to re-introduce hemp or federally legal cannabis into this country.

How was this to be accomplished, given the fierce and persistent opposition of the DEA to anything cannabis related? The answer: legislative cleverness. Hidden away in the miscellaneous section of the 2014 Farm Bill was a small provision allowing the experimental growth of industrial hemp in states in which cannabis had already been legalized. Although this has not spread to the point that the hemp industry has been re-established, the acreage of industrial hemp growth has been steadily increasing. Recently, it was planted once again at Mount Vernon, where the journals of George Washington document that he cultivated it.

As an addiction professional, I hope that this development is another indication that we as a society are changing our approach to the undeniable problems attributable to the use of cannabis. Draconian prohibition creates problems worse than the ones that it is intended to eliminate, including making criminals of people with a cannabis use disorder and significantly complicating their treatment.

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