The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has recognised cannabis seeds as hemp as long as they don’t exceed the THC limit of 0.3%. This clarification makes them legal under the 2018 Farm Bill and it means that seeds can be shipped legally to anywhere in the country, which opens up a wide range of possibilities for the spreading of the genetic diversity of cannabis across the nation’s markets.
Marijuana may currently be banned by the federal government, but the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has effectively recognised that the plant’s seeds are legal, regardless of how much THC they may end up producing when grown.
This means that cannabis growers can get their seeds from anywhere without having to worry about breaking federal law. Previously, and due to the federal ban, cannabis seeds were restricted to the state where they were produced, so a variety bred and grown in one state couldn’t legally go beyond the limits of that state.
The DEA recently conducted a review of the federal statute in response to a query from attorney Shane Pennington, who inquired about the legality of cannabis seeds and cuttings, and tissue cultures or ‘other genetic material’ containing no more than 0.3% THC.
After the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was excluded from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which means that currently all parts of the Cannabis sativa L. plant are not controlled, but only as long as they don’t exceed 0.3% THC.
“As a result, those marijuana seeds with a delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of no more than 0.3% in dry weight meet the definition of ‘hemp’ and are therefore not controlled by the CSA”, states Terrence L. Boos, head of the DEA’s Drug and Chemical Evaluation Section, in a letter dated 6th January 2022. This comment was made in response to the issues raised by Shane Pennington, who has an extensive history of litigation against the agency on cannabis matters and drug policy.
Both hemp and marijuana seeds generally contain low THC levels, which don’t exceed the legal threshold, and so the DEA essentially permits the purchase of cannabis seeds, no matter how much THC the resulting plant may produce, provided the seeds themselves contain less than 0.3% delta-9 THC.
Nevertheless, it’s important to say that the use of any cannabis seeds with the intention of growing marijuana remains illegal at federal level, since the plant is still banned.
Was it illegal to sell marijuana seeds before?
Until now, cannabis strains have been isolated in the regions where they have been created or where they’ve arrived from other countries, as they couldn’t be transported beyond state borders. For example, although recreational marijuana is legal state-wide in both California and Oregon, moving a plant from one of those states to another is illegal at federal level. This forces cannabis growers and breeders to operate within the limits of the state.
Many cannabis breeders and seed banks sell seeds throughout the U.S. but operate in a legal ‘grey area’. Generally, the labels show that the seeds are sold as a collector’s item or a souvenir, which provides a way to circumvent the law. But if authorities find cannabis seeds in the mail, they may seize them and arrest the sender or recipient, although this is not common. However, all of that could have changed in 2018 without anyone actually knowing about it.
Definition of ‘source’ as opposed to ‘material’
In 2018, the U.S. Congress passed a Farm Bill for the legalisation of hemp in the country. ‘Hemp’ was defined as any cannabis plant with a THC level below 0.3%. With this bill, hemp can be grown and used for industrial purposes. The 2018 bill also permits hemp production for the creation of cannabinoids other than THC, such as CBD or delta-8 THC.
Cannabis seeds have always been considered illegal because they come from plants with high THC levels. As the source of the seeds has THC levels over 0.3%, anything that comes from those plants (including the seeds) has also been considered illegal cannabis.
But in November 2021, Shane Pennington, attorney at the law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP in New York, wrote to DEA officials asking for clarification on the definition of growing cannabis seeds, clones, and tissue cultures. Mr. Pennington argued that it’s not the source of the material but the material itself that determines its legality, which means that a cannabis seed with less than 0.3% THC should be classified as hemp. And if the seeds are hemp, then they’re not a controlled substance, and are therefore legal at federal level.
What implications does this have for the cannabis industry?
If the DEA and the federal government permit seeds to move freely across the country, anyone would then be able to grow seeds from anywhere in their own state and certain strains would no longer be confined to a specific region. This could potentially trigger interest in investment, the development of a larger industry, and greater acceptance of the plant, as well as the expansion of the area of genetic innovation. The removal of transportation barriers between states would open up the genetic pool of cannabis, which would in turn provide breeders with a greater diversity of strains to work with.
According to Pennington, the federal law seems to be more flexible than expected, and so perhaps the biggest implication is that this sends a clear signal to state regulators. In fact, DEA officials last year clarified to the regulatory authorities that delta-8 THC, an increasingly popular psychoactive cannabinoid, was also not a controlled substance under existing law, because the 2018 Farm Bill that legalised hemp doesn’t explicitly prohibit THC isomers.
The states follow the DEA’s lead by creating their own drug laws, so watching the government agency relax its stance on cannabis seeds could get these states to do the same, thereby breaking protectionist state laws.
However, it’s important to highlight that, even though the DEA calls it ‘an official determination’, it is still not entirely clear whether they are legally bound to this position. For now, the DEA’s recognition that seeds, cuttings, and cannabis tissue cultures are not controlled substances is not a law, but it does signify a big step forward in easing the restrictions on marijuana.