The Maine hemp industry caught a break Wednesday when Gov. Janet Mills signed a law allowing a popular hemp byproduct, cannabidiol, to be added to food products, treating the wildly popular cannabis extract as a food rather than a medicine.
“Happy planting, hemp farmers,” said Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the bill’s author.
Hickman introduced the emergency bill after state consumer and community health inspectors began warning retailers to pull foods, beverages and tinctures containing cannabidiol, or CBD, off the shelves in January, citing both state and federal laws as the reason.
The state eventually apologized for that order, saying that inspectors were supposed to inform and educate retailers, not order any action, but it left the Maine hemp industry uncertain of the legality of its most important end market, CBD-infused foods.
“We heard from farmers, processors, retailers, health care practitioners and people who have found relief in the medicinal qualities of the nutrient dense whole food that is the hemp plant,” said Hickman, himself an organic farmer. “They needed us to act.”
The bill aligns the definition of hemp in state law with the definition used in the new U.S. Farm Bill. Both are a kind of cannabis, but hemp contains very little of the psychoactive agent found in marijuana. Hemp is now federally legal, while marijuana is not.
Mills signed the bill into law Wednesday morning after the House approved it last week 116-1, and the Senate passed it 32-1 on Tuesday. As an emergency measure, the change in Maine’s definition of hemp is immediate.
This gives Maine hemp farmers more confidence in an end market before deciding whether to apply for a state cultivation license by April 1. Hemp can be used for a range of products, from fiber to a concrete substitute, but CBD products are the most popular and profitable.
This law expands the definition of food to include products consumed by animals, like popular CBD dog treats. The national animal feed industry group that Maine takes its regulations from prohibits CBD use in animal food, but those will now have to be amended.
Because it will be treated like a food, Maine retailers cannot make any CBD health claims. But according to Brightfield Group, an industry analyst that forecast the U.S. CBD market at $591 million in 2018, consumers believe CBD can help with insomnia, anxiety, depression and pain.
The CBD craze has jump-started Maine’s hemp industry. What began in 2016 as a small pilot program, with two farmers cultivating a quarter of an acre of hemp, has grown into a 550-acre industry employing 82 licensed hemp farmers, according to 2018 state data.
Maine hemp farmers can expect to earn between $16,000 and $200,000 per acre, depending on their production method, product quality and end market, with CBD products bringing in the most money, according to farmers who testified in favor of the bill last month.
The state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry thinks Maine’s hemp market could triple in 2019, given high consumer demand for CBD and the new legalization of hemp on a federal level.
While Maine is giving CBD foods a thumbs up, federal laws remain murky.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement after the Farm Bill passed saying that adding CBD to foods was not allowed under federal law because CBD is now a medicine, the main active ingredient of a recently approved anti-seizure drug called Epidiolex.
The new Maine law does not shield Maine farmers, manufacturers or retailers from the federal uncertainty between Congress’ legalization of hemp and the FDA’s prohibition of CBD in food, but it protects them from any state action, state officials said.