Cornell University secured a $4 million grant from the New York State government to conduct cannabis research soon after hemp pilot programs were established under the 2014 Farm Bill. However, the challenges that these Cornell researchers are facing are typical of what other cannabis researchers are going through as explored below.
The Problematic Legal Definition of Hemp
Currently, the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana is a legal one rather than a botanical one. By law, hemp is cannabis whose THC content doesn’t exceed 0.3% while marijuana is cannabis whose THC content is more than 0.3% on a dry weight basis.
To compound matters even more for researchers, this definition was modified to include the precursors of THC, and this, in effect, means that more than 61% of all hemp plants grown can fail the federal test and must therefore be destroyed.
The CBD-THC Relationship
Matters don’t get any easier for researchers when you consider the relationship between THC and CBD in plants. These two cannabinoids occur in fixed ratios, such as 20:1 for hemp varieties that yield a high CBD content.
Since an increase in CBD content comes with an even higher level of THC, researchers find it difficult to work with hemp varieties that can produce a CBD concentration that is higher than 6% since this would result in the plants having THC levels which exceed the federal limit for hemp. Unfortunately, breeders haven’t been able to find a way around this barrier.
Challenges in Developing New Breeds
Plant breeders require access to a wide variety of plant resources in order to come up with desired varieties of a given plant. For example, breeders can consider as many of the existing varieties of hemp and marijuana in order to select the most desirable attributes or genes from each, and then use that collection to develop a superior variety.
However, the existing federal laws bar these plant breeders from using genetic material from some cannabis varieties which yield high levels of THC. This has the knock-on effect of limiting the ease with which breeders can innovate and bring to market new viable varieties.
The Cornell University researchers, along with researchers elsewhere, hope that lawmakers can tweak the regulations governing the research community so that the researchers can have some leeway to work with cannabis varieties which yield a high THC content as long as the objective is to develop hemp varieties which are compliant with the federal restrictions.
Unfortunately for these researchers, only Congress can change the 0.3% THC limit for hemp, so their only hope for now is that state legislators can pass state-level laws tweaking the requirements for the research community. Analysts agree that entities like Pure Extracts Corp. will be waiting to see what changes the USDA makes to its interim final rule on hemp once they review the comments submitted by stakeholders.
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