Hemp bill cruises through Vermont Legislatur​e, but DEA stands its ground

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Photo by Andrew Stein

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Photo by Andrew Stein

Last week, the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee unanimously voted to create a state-sanctioned process to grow hemp, despite federal regulations essentially prohibiting the action.

Under the bill, hemp is defined as Cannabis Sativa with a tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, concentration of 0.3 percent or less. The low-potency form of marijuana is touted in the bill for its long-standing market presence and strength in industries like textiles, clothing, bio-fuel, paper, cosmetics and more.

Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, supports the bill. “The governor likes to say we have an agricultural renaissance happening, and I think this bill could accelerate that,” Zagar said. “Hemp is an amazingly versatile, valuable and productive crop that could serve a number of needs in Vermont and give farmers a bunch of new tools.”

The House Agriculture Committee re-drafted S.157, which passed out of the Senate at the end of March. The bill would replace a Vermont statute that permits the growing of industrial hemp, but only when federal regulation permits it.

The new provision, however, runs afoul of federal regulations, and House members say Congress must step in to legalize hemp.

“We’ve got to send a message,” said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee. “This is the kind of message I think will mean something to the federal delegation, and Sen. Leahy’s committee has a hemp bill before them.”

In January, Sen. Patrick Leahy wrote to the Drug Enforcement Administration asking for information about the way in which the agency regulates hemp. Last week, Leahy received a response from Eric Akers, deputy chief of the DEA, reiterating that cannabis is an illegal, controlled substance.

“Under the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance regardless of potency,” Akers wrote. The DEA allows growers to register for the the legal cultivation of cannabis with a long list of requirements.

Akers wrote that he couldn’t tell the senator how many people had sought to cultivate cannabis for industrial purposes because the administration doesn’t track the information. Since 2000, three of eight applicants were granted permission to grow hemp, according to Akers, and one of the registrations is pending until “required security measures” are taken. The other four applicants were denied because they would not install the feds’ security measures.

“DEA believes the current regulatory framework governing these types of applications … remains adequate,” Akers concluded. “In this vein, please note that even those cannabis plants that have a relatively low THC concentration provide a substantial source of psychoactive material that would be readily exploited by drug seekers — for example, manufacturers of ‘hash oil’ — if inadequate security measures were tolerated.”

The registration process that the State of Vermont would impose under the House bill would be much more lax than the federal law. It would require the grower to submit to the Secretary of Agriculture his or her name and address, a statement that the cannabis variety does not exceed the state potency threshold, and the location and acreage of the hemp parcels. The bill would give the Agriculture Secretary the power to leverage an annual $25 registration fee for administration purposes.

The Vermont registration literature would also come with the following caveat: “Federal prosecution for growing hemp in violation of federal law may include criminal penalties, forfeiture of property, and loss of access to federal agricultural benefits, including agricultural loans, conservation programs, and insurance programs.”

One person who might be willing to risk such penalties is Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, who owns Golden Russet Farm.

“I’ll look into the option as part of my management plan,” Stevens said. “I’d be happy to look at it as part of our crop rotation. If hemp fits into that, fine. And if we can figure out ways to harvest it and market it, even better.”

Robb Kidd, an organizer for the advocacy group Rural Vermont, said he knows numerous farmers who are interested in the prospect. Rural Vermont has been advocating for the legalization of industrial hemp production for almost a decade. He says the bill that passed out of the House Agriculture Committee is the group’s “ideal, dream bill.”

“Times have changed dramatically,” he said. “Everybody has realized the economic opportunity. They have realized we need to get this moving, and the federal government delay is not helping.”

Correction: Rep. Teo Zagar represents Barnard, not Woodstock.


Andrew Stein

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