Blame it on the Times
You may have heard news about the Agricultural Improvement Act (commonly known as the farm bill) in the US and the Cannabis Act in Canada, both of which effectively legalized hemp and CBD. Despite these laws, the legal status of CBD as a food additive remains murky and confusing in both countries. While the Non-GMO Project does not yet verify products containing CBD, we are keeping a close eye on this emerging industry because some biotechnology companies are already developing CBD that is derived from GMOs. They take microorganisms such as yeast or algae and alter their DNA through biotechnology so that they excrete CBD. There are at least two GMO CBD products on the market already—the Non-GMO Project’s team of full-time researchers will continue to track these developments.
Cannabis is a whole genus of flowering plants that includes both hemp and marijuana. These specific plants were selectively bred (using traditional crossbreeding methods) for very different purposes. All members of the cannabis family contain varying levels of more than 100 different cannabinoid compounds, which notably include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive component that makes people feel “high.” If a cannabis plant contains more than 0.3 percent THC content, it is legally classified as marijuana—a schedule I drug in the US. If a cannabis plant has 0.3 percent THC content or less, it is classified as industrial hemp. Both marijuana and hemp contain CBD, which is not psychoactive and may have beneficial applications for some people.
I Guard the Canadian Border
Hemp has a longstanding tradition in North America, and it used to be a massively valuable crop. King James I ordered Jamestown colonists to grow and export it, the Canadian government distributed free hemp seeds, George Washington grew it, and hemp was used as legal tender in three early colonies—you could even pay your taxes with it. The Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the US Constitution were all written on hemp paper. The United States even operated a Hemp for Victory campaign during WWII.
The growth and use of hemp have been heavily restricted in the US since the adoption of the “Marihuana Tax Act” of 1937. Hemp prohibition came into full effect with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This law classified all types of cannabis as a schedule I controlled substance—the same as heroin. This pushed industrial hemp into a confusing legal gray area. For a long time, it was not legal to grow any hemp in the US, but it was still permissible to import, possess, and consume hemp within certain restrictions. This changed state-by-state over several decades, with some states only permitting hemp cultivation for scientific research. In October 2013, a Colorado farmer became the first to harvest a commercial hemp crop in 56 years. As of July 2018, it was still only legal to cultivate hemp in 36 states.
All cannabis (including what we call hemp) remained a schedule I drug until the Hemp Farming Act passed as part of the farm bill in December 2018. Rather than rescheduling all cannabis, the Hemp Farming Act effectively changed the definition of marijuana so that it does not include hemp. This means hemp, and its derivative CBD, are no longer regulated under the Controlled Substances Act and do not appear on the DEA’s controlled substances list. While industrial hemp is now legal to grow, the FDA retains the authority to regulate its use in food, drugs, and cosmetics.
American hemp farmers will now be eligible for crop insurance, water rights, financing opportunities, and some of the other federal and state benefits other farmers enjoy. The descheduling of hemp will also allow researchers to study hemp and its useful derivatives more effectively.
It’s a Dream Come True
Common hemp-derived foods are made from hemp seeds, not the entire hemp plant. Accordingly, foods such as hemp hearts, hemp milk, and (most) full-spectrum hemp oils do not contain significant amounts of CBD. These foods are widely available and have always been eligible for Non-GMO Project Verification. Newly-legal CBD products are different because they come from concentrated CBD, derived from the entire hemp plant.
The CBD market is growing quickly! There are concentrated CBD products such as isolates, capsules, tinctures, extracts, and cartridges for vaporizers. CBD is also found in topical remedies, patches, and a variety of wellness products. Pets can also take part in the CBD craze; there are all kinds of treats, pills, and sprays made just for cats and dogs. It’s always a good idea to check with your veterinarian before giving your pet any supplement.
Consumers should be aware that CBD products can be made with the same GMO risk ingredients as their regular counterparts. Any product containing alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, soy, sugar beets, zucchini, potatoes, or animal products could be derived from GMOs. Processed inputs such as maltodextrin, amino acids, xanthan gum, vitamins E and C, alcohol, glycerin, sucrose, molasses, and yeast are commonly derived from GMOS—especially when found in personal care products. Until the Non-GMO Project can verify CBD products, it is best to assume that any products made with these risk ingredients could contain GMOs.
Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die
The legal marijuana industry is growing steadily as well. Marijuana, defined as cannabis that contains more than 0.3 percent THC content, is legal for adult use across Canada and in 10 US states. An additional 13 states have decriminalized marijuana. Some dispensaries and retail shops are selling legal marijuana products (especially edibles) with self-made non-GMO claims. When a company makes their own non-GMO claim, they are essentially telling consumers "trust us" without having any evidence to back their claim. This is one of the reasons the Non-GMO Project was started—to provide a trustworthy label for non-GMO products that is enforced by third-party, independent testing.
Some companies are also looking into creating genetically modified marijuana and genetically modified THC. This work is largely in the research and development phase; legal constraints make it difficult for scientists to research this controlled substance. By the way, Monsanto did not create the world’s first GMO marijuana—this common misconception has been debunked.
From food to wellness products, you have a right to know what is in the products you bring into your home and you now have the freedom to enjoy legal CBD products if you want to. Just remember to look out for common risk ingredients when you purchase hemp-derived products.
With apologies to Mr. Nelson