MarketplaceHow US law influences farmers’ hemp seed genetics

How US law influences farmers’ hemp seed genetics


When selecting your preferred hemp seed genetics, you can’t only consider the plant’s potential for fiber or textile production or cannabinoid content, but legal restrictions as well. For the last on the list, federal regulations need to be higher on your priority list to prevent your crops from getting destroyed due to excessive THC content.

Standards for hemp seed genetics in the context of the 2018 US Farm Bill

When cannabis was first legally prohibited in the United States, the new legislation didn’t affect only marijuana, but industrial hemp, too. American farmers lost access to cultivating one of the world’s most dynamic botanical products – that is, until the 2018 Farm Bill

Generally, no matter the “strain” (or, more officially, the cultivar) of hemp you might grow, your plants cannot contain any more than 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Before this, hemp was never legally distinguished from marijuana. This is why it was held to the same legal prohibitions as psychoactive cannabis. 

Additionally, the 2018 bill federally legalized cannabidiol (CBD) that is specifically derived from industrial hemp that was cultivated according to federal and state regulations by a licensed grower. Outside those conditions, it is still be considered illegal. 

These are just a few of the details that can guide you in setting standards for industrial hemp seeds as you prepare for an upcoming crop. 

Since genetics plays a role in cannabis plants’ cannabinoid concentrations, including THC, CBD, and cannabichromene, or CBC, farmers must be careful in choosing an appropriate genetic line when starting their crop. The last thing famers will want to do is haphazardly choosing stock, only to find that the THC levels don’t comply with federal law. In such an instance, farmers are required to remediate or destroy the crop.

Some have suggested that this may not be the case forever. As scientists make progress on their knowledge of hemp’s genetic expression and physiology, we may see increasingly loosening legal restrictions over the years. 

Should you watch out for delta-9 THC or all THC in hemp genetics? 

Federal law defines industrial hemp as the Cannabis sativa L. plant and plant materials and derivatives with a “delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” Many cultivators were later eager to point out that this legislation did not include other types of THC, such as the increasingly popular delta-8 THC. 

Hemp distributor, Alex Petrick, told West Florida State University (WFSU), “The definition of marijuana is cannabis that is above .3 Delta-9-THC plus THCA times .877… Delta-8 on the other hand is not mentioned anywhere regarding marijuana in any situation or context.” 

This has created a bit of a legal loophole that some cultivators are capitalizing on, entering the market with brand-new Delta-8 products. 

As researchers begin to learn more about the effects of delta-8, which is a relatively mildly psychoactive version of the more well-known delta-9 THC, some members of the cannabis community are wary that stricter regulations might be headed their way. 

Until then, there is some confusion amongst cannabis users, growers, and distributors as to which type of THC you should watch out for in your hemp’s genetic makeup. 

This is partially because of organizations such as the Food and Drug Law Institute reciting the law with a general reference to THC, not a specific type. The FDLI states of the 2018 Farm Bill that plants cannot contain any more than “a 0.3 percent concentration of THC. Any cannabis plant that contains more than 0.3 percent THC falls outside the scope of the new law.”

It’s easy to get confused when high-profile sources like this vaguely recite federal law without critical details that could quite literally lead to or prevent the destruction of your crops. A quick look at both the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills will clear any mix-ups right away:

“The term ‘hemp’ means the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” 7 USC 1639o. Title X Subtitle G Sec. 297A (1)

You can find a similar definition in the text of the 2014 legislation:

“The term ‘industrial hemp’ means the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” 7 USC 5940 Part II Subtitle F Sec. 7606 (2)

SB113 sought to change the federal THC limit on hemp

In January of this year, the US witnessed the beginning of a legislative push to expand the legal definition of hemp. Despite the mild confusion surrounding the particularly cannabinoids that are currently under federal restriction, hemp presently must not exceed what some consider to be a miniscule amount of THC. 

In fact, it’s such a small percentage that some cannabis supporters, such as Kentucky Cannabis Company officials and Kentucky Senator Adrienne Southworth (R-KY), think the US should allow higher concentrations. 

More specifically, their recently proposed bill, Senate Bill 113, would increase the legal limit to 1% delta-9 THC within the state of Kentucky, as it only addresses hemp’s legal definition in the Kentucky Revised Statutes. 

Many have drawn parallels between this act and the HEMP (Hemp Economic Mobilization Plan) Act of 2020, introduced by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). This statute also demanded an increase to 1% THC for cultivators, along with the following legislative changes:

  • Hemp-derived products require testing, not the hemp flower or plant (this would free up farmers’ liability for potential logistical hiccups that cause them to miss the current 15-day testing window)
  • All hemp farmers, processors, and transporters must have a copy of their hemp’s seed certificate proving that the plant was grown from seeds with 1% THC. 
  • Introduces a margin of error to eliminate uncertainty in THC testing. 

The Kentucky Cannabis Company and Senator Southworth followed Senator Paul’s act quickly, introducing their bill less than one month after Senator Paul’s on January 13, 2021. However, their proposed amendments only focus on the percentage of THC in hemp products and did not touch on corrections like those posed in Senator Paul’s bill. 

Katie Moyer, Kentucky Hemp Works owner, stated of Paul’s proposal, “The U.S. hemp industry has had its share of roadblocks, but we continue to push forward and make changes that will help hemp producers thrive. Senator Paul’s HEMP Act has the potential to improve upon the highest priority issues for hemp growers, processors, and labs, while making sure to keep our consumers safe as well.” 

Sadly, Senator Southworth’s bill failed on March 30 according to Bill Track 50. Yet, the same is not listed on the official Kentucky Legislative Research Commission website. So, there is still hope on the horizon for future hemp cultivators concerning federal and state legislation. 

What does all this mean for your hemp seeds’ genetics? 

For now, it’s best that you stick to hemp seeds that you are confident will give you a legal THC level of 0.3% or lower. There is a chance that you’ll be allowed to grow hemp strains containing THC levels up to 1%. But for now, it’s best to do all you can to carefully choose your seed’s genetics and prevent your crop from “going hot” (meaning its THC levels climb too high – pun intended). 

Contrary to popular belief, everything you need to do to prevent your plants from going hot happens before you ever put the seeds in the ground. This is because this process is influenced by the seeds’ genes, not as a stress response to environmental conditions, a recent Cornell study discovered. 

The scientists learned that if the total THC content – not just delta-9 THC – was the basis of current legal criteria, then 61% of one of their tested lines, a BD/BD gene cross, would be noncompliant with federal regulations. They also stated that this might not be an easy fix, since it can be difficult to develop a high-CBD cultivar with low THC levels. 

Ultimately, the researchers state that CBD concentrations higher than 6% raise your chances of accidentally surpassing the legal 0.3% limit. With this said, breeders are encouraged to find ways to raise the total ratio of CBD to THC. 


Current hemp legislation can have extensive impacts on your selection of hemp seed genetic lines. At present, the most important legal factor for you to consider is how your crop’s genetics will affect THC concentrations. 

Despite recent efforts to raise the legal THC limit to 1% in hemp, it remains at 0.3% for now. Because of this, be mindful of CBD concentrations higher than 6%, as these increase your chances of mistakenly exceeding the maximum allowed THC. 

Jazmin Murphy
Jazmin Murphy is a trained science writer & reporter who has covered a breadth of topics. She is also a strong supporter and advocate of cannabis for recreational, wellness, and medical purposes.


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