USDA Approves Maine's Hemp Program, but Ag Specialists Say Way Forward Still Confusing

Sep 3, 2020

Maine agriculture officials announced Wednesday that the state has been given a green light by the USDA to continue managing its own fledgling hemp industry beyond an original sunset date of October 31.

But the agency also says the state must operate that hemp program under new federal guidelines, and state agriculture specialists are already bracing for confusion.

"We are recommending that growers try to get their crop harvested by October 31 if they can," says state horticulturalist Gary Fish. Fish says federal rules as written differ from current state rules in several important ways that could cause problems for those harvesting after that date.

For example, significant changes to how the USDA determines THC levels for hemp mean that many strains popular with hemp farmers will no longer be legal. THC is the psychoactive substance in cannabis.

"It's going to be a process of learning for all of us, and we're going to be very understanding. And if there are situations where crops are not necessarily in full compliance we're going to try and find ways to mitigate those crops so they can still be used and not have to destroy those crops."

Farmers growing for cannabidiol and other terpenes for the CBD market may have difficulty going forward, says Fish, as those strains are often the same strains that possess THC in levels that will no longer pass the USDA guidelines after November 1.

Differences between the existing state plan and the federal rules must be reconciled during the legislative session, due to start in January. However it's likely the state will start the spring growing season out of compliance.

Fish says the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is hoping to have official rules in place at least by September 2021.

Still, Fish says the USDA guidance could itself change, and all the upheaval may already be having a chilling effect on the industry.

Last year he says Mainers grew 3200 acres of hemp. This year they grew 362 acres of hemp, and the state issued about half as many licenses as last year.