Farmers may soon be able to harvest the whole hemp plant, including the leaves and flowers they are currently required to throw away.
Health Canada has just completed consultations on the federal government’s proposed framework for legal cannabis, a document that includes regulations that are, “risk based and that allows cultivators of industrial hemp to sell the whole hemp plant to certain persons licensed under the proposed Cannabis Act.”
The federal government proposed the changes last November and expects any changes to hemp to come in force at the same time as the Cannabis Act this summer.
Hemp licences would expand to include, “the intra-industry sale of leaves, flowers and branches (or the whole plant),” under the framework, while other changes would let farmers store hemp like any other agricultural product, rather than a locked location.
Producers would still report cultivation sites, testing for things like pesticides, and equipment cleaning, as well as any transaction on leaves, flowers or branches to another licence holder.
It’s good news for the hemp industry.
The sector has long argued that regulations write them out of the nutraceutical market.
Cannabis has been the dominant source of CBD (or cannabidiol), a chemical marketed for a wide range of ailments, although most established usage revolves around its ability to treat seizures.
The hemp sector, however, argues that hemp also produces some CBD, but with little to no THC, the chemical causing the “high” in cannabis.
A 2017 report from commercial cannabis data company Brightfield Group put hemp-derived CBD sales in the U.S. at $170 million in 2016, Forbes magazine reported last August. At the same time, The Hemp Business Journal expects hemp to make up about a quarter of their projected US$2.1-billion CBD industry in the U.S. by 2020.
“We’re missing out on a huge economic opportunity by not being able to use the entire plant,” Clare Dutchyshen, office manager with Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers in Dauphin, said.
The Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers, like most of the hemp industry, has been a firm supporter of deregulating hemp.
The future of the crop does not necessarily mean doing away with licences, she said, and, in fact, she thinks growers should still be licensed due to the very small, but still existing, levels of THC.
“The levels are extremely low and very unharmful, but if they decide to continue a licensing program, it shouldn’t be treated like a controlled substance,” she said. “It should be treated like an agricultural commodity because that is what it has become and is more becoming that way.”
Canada sets hemp THC limits at 0.3 per cent.
The province of Manitoba has also thrown in behind the deregulation of hemp, although not a removal of licensing.
“We think that the controls have to be in place, absolutely. As far as using the whole plant, they haven’t been able to utilize the whole plant,” Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler said.
Eichler says his department has supported looser regulations, and, in particular, the ability of farmers to harvest the whole plant, for years, although there has been no official talks with Health Canada in at least the last six months.
“We see that there’s opportunities for the hemp sector to grow and prosper as a result of this and we’ve asked for exemption for hemp and we’ve been very vocal about that,” he said.
The issue was at the heart of a letter Eichler wrote to then federal health minister Jane Philpott in October 2016. Eichler said the letter outlined Manitoba’s concerns with hemp regulation, although he did not hear any response at that time.
The Prairies will be among the provinces most anticipating the incoming changes.
Manitoba was the third-largest hemp-growing province last year behind Alberta and Saskatchewan with about 19 per cent of all cultivation licences.
Hemp regulations have already eased from the first framework in the ’90s.
In 2016, Health Canada did away with THC testing in most hemp varieties, an exemption that also changed pre-seeding reporting requirements, extended the licence period to March the following year, streamlined licensing so that a producer could use a single licence for all cultivation sites and introduced email submission for applications.
Even then, Health Canada tied the changes to incoming cannabis legalization and the need to streamline regulations ahead of it.
Today’s 10-page application includes a mandatory criminal record check, hemp storage locations, where records will be kept, field location, farm address and end use of the product.
“They want to know exactly what they’re going to be doing with the hemp,” Dutchyshen said. “So are they going to be using it for plant breeding or are they just going to be cultivating it? What are they going to be doing with the grain from it? What are they going to be doing with the fibre from it? Do they plan to sell it?”
It is generally easy to get approved if the farmer has no criminal record or drug-related charges, she added.
The 2016 exemptions have made an impact to farmers, Dutchyshen added. Farmers may now report their field locations within 15 days after planting, something that allows them to choose fields at seeding and gives flexibility.
Licensing holdups have also improved, Dutchyshen said. Farmers were frustrated in early 2016 when some ended up missing crop insurance deadlines due to slow licensing.
Dutchyshen says the extended licence has helped deal with that backlog.
“You used to get licensed from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 and then your licence would expire and even if you didn’t plan on growing hemp again the next year, you had to reapply for your licence in case you still had some hemp grain in the bin or fibre bales sitting on your field,” she said. “You have to be licensed to store it. I think that was where a lot of the farmers were running into the issues. Their licence was up Dec. 31, and suddenly there was an influx of applications that Health Canada was having to deal with.”
The hemp industry was among the 3,200 Canadians and 450 stakeholders to take part in the Health Canada consultations this year. The national health agency released a summary of comments March 19.