AUGUSTA — Hemp advocates urged state lawmakers Tuesday to lift remaining barriers to the industrial production of the crop in Maine despite disagreement over the federal government’s policies toward marijuana’s utilitarian sibling.
Two bills pending in the Legislature would allow the state to issue licenses to grow hemp – a crop used for everything from clothing textiles and home insulation to food and fuels – without waiting for the federal government to change hemp’s status as an illegal drug.
The bills are part of a national effort to end the long-standing federal prohibition on most hemp production by changing state policies and coincide with shifting attitudes and policies toward marijuana, although hemp advocates attempt to keep the two separate.
“We have people in this state who are ready to make capital investments – real investments – in this (hemp) industry, capital investments that will create jobs and inject money into this economy,” said Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, sponsor of one of the two bills. “All the pieces are in place with the people behind them, ready to go with the flip of a switch.”
Grown for centuries in the U.S. and for thousands of years around the globe, hemp has been so tightly regulated in the U.S. since 1970s that it is effectively banned as a crop. But hemp products are legal in the U.S., and as a result, the U.S. imports massive quantities of grown hemp annually from places such as Canada and China.
Both industrial hemp and marijuana come from the same plant species – Cannibis sativa – but hemp comes from a variant with a fraction of the levels of the psychoactive substance found in marijuana and, therefore, cannot be used to get high. Additionally, hemp is made from stalks and seeds while marijuana comes from flowers or buds cultivated from variants with much higher levels of the psychoactive substance THC.
In January 2014, the Farm Bill passed by Congress loosened the restrictions on industrial hemp cultivation by allowing states and universities to conduct research on hemp. But a hemp cultivation law on the books in Maine since 2009 specifies that the state can only issue licenses when the federal government removes industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana or begins issuing permits to others.
PREVIOUS BILL DIED IN FUNDING
Last year, Maine’s Legislature passed a bill to eliminate that language and set up a process within the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to begin grower licensing and distribution of hemp seeds. But the bill died in the budget-writing committee because it carried a price tag of more than $40,000.
Sanderson has reintroduced that bill this year while Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, has filed a more simplified bill that would only eliminate the language requiring federal action on hemp prior to Maine issuing licenses. Sanderson and Miramant, like other advocates who spoke Tuesday, want Maine to allow industrial production of hemp, not just university research.
TOUTED AS EXTREMELY PROFITABLE
Those bills were touted Tuesday as a way to inject additional vitality into Maine’s farming sector and position the state at the forefront of what many believe could be a multibillion-dollar industry.
“It’s a wonderful product that can have a multitude of uses,” Leif Erickson with the Maine Hemp Industries Association trade group told members of the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee.
Rebecca Lane of Stacyville in northern Penobscot County said she and her husband are working with Unity College on a pilot project that would conduct research on hemp cultivation. The Lanes have also formed a corporation that would create hemp oil – an increasingly common product in cosmetics as well as some health foods – from seeds.
Testifying Tuesday in support of Sanderson’s bill on behalf of herself and Unity College’s pilot project, Lane argued that the project is ready to go but needs the Legislature to act quickly in order to “put seeds in the ground” in 2015.
“Our agricultural conditions are ideal for growing industrial hemp, and our industrial base is ideal for processing it into sustainable products,” Lane said. “With over 25,000 products that can be made from hemp, it can spark an entrepreneurial revolution across the state.”
FEDERAL POLICY SHIFTING
Federal policy toward hemp is changing, although not nearly as quickly as hemp industry advocates and farmers across the country would like. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states including Maine have enacted policies allowing for hemp research or pilot projects while several, such as Colorado, are moving forward with licensing of industrial hemp growers.
There was disagreement at Tuesday’s meeting about whether the Farm Bill and the proposed bills in Maine would allow the state to license anything beyond research projects.
Ann Gibbs with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry testified neither for nor against the bills but said the department is supportive of introducing new crops and views hemp as one with considerable economic potential.
However, Gibbs added that even if the bills passed, the state would still have to deal with federal restrictions. Additionally, the major hurdle to starting any hemp industry in Maine or any other state, Gibbs testified, is being able to obtain hemp seeds through the tightly regulated federal system as well as “the threat of legal intervention.”
“Probably the best way to start a hemp industry in a state is to focus on research and not on commercial production,” Gibbs said.
The Maine Farm Bureau Association and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association both testified in support of the bills. There was no opposition.
BILL COULD FACE BUDGET CHALLENGES
Tuesday’s debate occurs against a backdrop of growing acceptance of marijuana in Maine and nationally. Maine is one of roughly two dozen states that allow medicinal use of marijuana, and two organizations are gearing up to put pot legalization measures on the 2016 ballot following legalization votes in Portland and Lewiston.
Several lawmakers said Tuesday that the hemp production bills will likely pass the Legislature again this year but acknowledged they will once again face a challenge of providing funding to the state programs that would be needed to support state licensing.
Correction: This story was revised at 10:41 a.m., Feb. 11, 2015, to reflect that Rebecca Lane and her husband live in Stacyville in northern Penobscot County.