It’s hard to believe, but despite their best efforts otherwise, Congress and the White House actually did manage to accomplish something good for the country last year. It wasn’t just that they put off brinksmanship over the budget or the debt ceiling, either: they actually passed legislation that enacted a major policy change. They even managed to do it in a broadly bipartisan way, easily passing both the House and Senate before being signed into law by President Trump.

The bill was the 2018 Farm Bill, authorizing over $850 billion in continuing spending on agricultural issues. That it was a spending bill should come as no surprise: If there’s anything both parties can readily agree on, it’s spending more money.

The surprise was that the bill contained a major policy shift, removing hemp – the variety of cannabis with little to no psychoactive effects – from the list of controlled substances. This was a worthwhile change long overdue, since it never really made much sense to categorize hemp as an illegal drug rather than as an agricultural product. It would be essentially the same as making the cultivation of all mushrooms illegal just because some kinds of mushrooms can get you high, even though plenty of them just taste great on pizza.

That change led the owners of the Sheepscot General Farm & Store in Whitefield to come up with the idea of a pick-your-own hemp field, like farms all over Maine do with apples and blueberries. It’s the first such field in Maine, and it would seem to be exactly the sort of small business that Congress hoped to encourage by reclassifying hemp. Sadly, when Congress passed the farm bill, they basically just told the USDA to go write new regulations – which were only just released last week. That left the crop in legal purgatory, as Sheepscot General found out when their bank, Camden National, and insurance company, Acadia Insurance, recently moved to cancel their accounts. Because there weren’t regulations yet, the financial institutions weren’t willing to gamble on this new industry – even for a current customer.

Sheepscot General isn’t a tech company, creating a brand-new industry that operates in a field that’s completely unregulated. Companies such as those benefit from the rigidity and slowness of the government regulatory process, because it can take years for the laws to catch up to them; in the meantime they can make billions. Instead, Sheepscot General is in a very old industry, trying to grow a crop that has been grown for thousands of years and only been banned for less than 50. When that ban was ended legislatively, it meant that those hoping to grow it either had to gamble and operate without federal oversight or sit around and wait for bureaucrats to do their jobs.

At a state level, we’ve seen a similar scenario play out over the legalization of recreational marijuana. Though voters passed it at the ballot box in 2016, it’s taken the state nearly three years to actually put in place regulations governing recreational sales. With both the federal legalization of hemp and the state-level legalization of recreational marijuana, we see how bureaucracy can be manipulated to thwart the will of the voters. One way to avoid this is for Congress to pass the regulations themselves: A bipartisan bill to give hemp and marijuana businesses access to the financial industry has already passed the House. Hopefully, Congress will come to bipartisan agreement over some version of this legislation, just as they did with the farm bill. Unfortunately, the legislative process – just like the regulatory process – can be a long and bumpy one.

The saga of Sheepscot General and hemp shows the inherent danger in over-dependence on the federal government for regulation. When we let the feds control too much, it stifles innovation both in public policy at the state and local levels and in businesses large and small. While we need federal regulations in some areas, they shouldn’t be so pervasive that we can’t function without them.

When it comes to marijuana policy, public opinion may be far ahead of the politicians – a majority in both parties now support legalization. The federal bureaucracy, though, will be well behind both, which is a big part of the reason that quick policy changes mainly happen as the result of executive actions or court decisions.

It’s well past time for this country to reign in federal bureaucrats and make our government a little more nimble and responsive to the people.


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