Maine is one of a dozen states in which hemp could be grown for research purposes if the farm bill passed Wednesday in the U.S. House of Representatives becomes law.

But as long as commercial hemp production remains a violation of federal law, it’s unlikely that research institutions in Maine would have much interest in studying it, said an official at one of the state’s leading agricultural research centers.

John Rebar, executive director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said the potential market for hemp remains unknown because it is illegal to grow commercially in the United States, and the farm bill wouldn’t change that.

“Nobody has looked at hemp as a viable crop for Maine,” he said. “Why would you commit to doing industrial hemp research?”

Industrial hemp, which contains only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound found in its close cousin marijuana, has thousands of commercial uses including rope, fabrics, paper, wax, food-grade seeds and oil, and even fuel.

A state law passed in 2009 makes it legal to grow hemp commercially in Maine, if and when it becomes legal nationwide.

If the farm bill passes next week in the Senate and becomes law, as expected, hemp cultivation for research purposes will be allowed in states with their own laws permitting it.

Those states are Maine, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.

Advocates for the legalization of industrial hemp say it could become a hugely profitable crop for the United States, but Rebar said the point is irrelevant to farmers in Maine until hemp production is legalized.

Agricultural research in Maine is now focused on products with strong market demand, he said, such as hops for brewing beer, wheat for making bread, and cheeses.

“Agriculture is just as much a business as anything else,” he said.

In 2003, the Maine Legislature commissioned the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station to assess the commercial viability of cultivating industrial hemp.

In response, the station’s director produced a report that said Maine’s soils and climate are adequate to produce it.

The report identified potential benefits to hemp production.

As a crop, hemp is highly pest-resistant and naturally suppresses weeds, which would reduce the cost to farmers and pollution associated with pesticides and weed killers, it said.

Paper made from hemp would reduce deforestation and make paper mills run cleaner, it said, because hemp requires fewer chemicals than wood for processing.

But those benefits are irrelevant as long as commercial hemp production remains a federal crime, the report said.

“As long as this is the case, new products and new uses for hemp will not develop,” it said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

canderson@pressherald.com

Twitter: @jcraiganderson