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.”

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 and state allowance of CBD food sales goes into effect immediately.

“I am glad we were able to take steps to rectify this issue,” Mills said after signing the bill.

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 THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana. Hemp is now federally legal, but marijuana is not. Marijuana has been legal under state law since 2016.

CBD products available to the general public are derivatives of hemp, not marijuana. Edibles made with marijuana extract can only be sold to patients with medical marijuana cards through dispensaries or one of the state’s 2,400 licensed medical marijuana caregivers.

Maine farmers, retailers and caregivers lobbied hard in favor of this bill, portraying it as a David versus Goliath type fight, with federal regulators and pharmaceutical companies trying to regulate small hemp growers and manufacturers out of the market.

“It sends a powerful message to the pharmaceutical companies and others who fought against this bill,” said Unity caregiver Dawson Julia. “The Maine hemp industry will not be sold out to the highest bidder when it comes to hemp… We locals are not going down without a fight.”

But not everyone in the industry likes the new law. Some hemp farmers and retailers worry it will create unnecessary state oversight of a non-psychedelic plant no different than mint or chamomile. Others say the law fails to provide enough state oversight, including consumer protections like labeling and testing.

“Now that the Legislature has created a state market for CBD products, it is imperative they ensure that the law provides for commonsense consumer protections such as testing, packaging and label oversight by a regulatory agency,” said attorney Hannah King of Maine Professionals for Regulating Marijuana.

The new law will allow for the sale of CBD animal food, including popular dog treats.

Because it will be a food under the new state law, not a medicine, Maine retailers cannot make any CBD health claims. According to Brightfield Group, however, consumers believe CBD eases insomnia, anxiety, depression and pain, and spent an estimated $591 million on CBD products nationally in 2018.

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.

The bill gives Maine hemp farmers access to a state-legal end market before deciding whether to pay the $650 required to get a state cultivation license. Hemp can be used for a range of products, from fiber to a concrete substitute, but CBD products are the most popular and profitable.

Maine hemp farmers can earn between $16,000 and $200,000 per acre, depending on their production method, product quality and end market. Growing consumer demand has led state officials to predict the local hemp market could double or even triple in 2019.

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 active ingredient of Epidiolex, a recently approved anti-seizure drug. Under federal law, “medicine” cannot be added to food.

The new Maine law protects local farmers, manufacturers and retailers from state action, but it does not shield them from federal warnings, product seizures and law enforcement action that could arise while the FDA tries to figure out how to handle the federal legalization of hemp.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or [email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH