Legislature lifts restrictions on growing hemp in Vermont

The Vermont General Assembly has voted to lift a state ban on growing hemp, despite a federal prohibition on producing the low-potency form of Cannabis — the same plant genus that yields marijuana.

If Gov. Peter Shumlin signs Senate bill 157 into law, it would replace a Vermont statute that bans the growing of industrial hemp unless federal regulation permits it. Under the new law, hemp would be defined as Cannabis sativa with a tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, concentration of 0.3 percent or less. THC is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

On Friday, the House overwhelmingly voted in favor of the bill, which included an amendment that relaxed the role of the Agency of Agriculture in the hemp registration process. The Senate agreed to the change Monday, and the bill is headed to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Teo Zagar, D-Barnard, said that there is widespread public support for the provision, from chicken farmers who want to use hemp seed pods to make their eggs healthier to clothing  and instrument manufacturers.

“It really is one of the most versatile plants there is. I can’t think of any more versatile that you can build with, eat and make clothes out of,” he said. “If Vermont takes the lead on this, and we have Vermont natural hemp products, it could be huge. We could have a huge export market opportunity.”

According to the Hemp Industries Association, annual retail sales for hemp products in 2012 reached $500 million.

Zagar, who pushed hard for this bill in the House Agriculture Committee, acknowledges the Drug Enforcement Administration’s opposition to hemp production, which was made clear to Sen. Patrick Leahy last month.

 “We’re basically removing the state prohibition so that Vermont State Police won’t be able to arrest someone for growing a harmless plant,” Zagar said.

Cannabis of any kind is considered a “Schedule I” drug by the DEA, and the federal administration requires registration to grow such plants. Meanwhile, less than a handful of applicants have been given the green light to grow hemp since 2000.

Both branches of Congress are entertaining hemp-legalization bills, but for now the practice of growing this crop is essentially illegal. If a Vermonter seeks to grow hemp, the registration form with the state Agency of Agriculture emphasizes that growing hemp is a violation of federal law and can result in “criminal penalties, forfeiture of property, and loss of access to federal agricultural benefits, including agricultural loans, conservation programs, and insurance programs.”

Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, was chair of the House Agriculture Committee when the Legislature passed a bill that would legalize hemp production if the federal government did the same.

“We moved the dial then, and now we’ve basically finished the job,” he said. “We’ve basically said in Vermont you can grow hemp, but still you have to be aware that the federal government doesn’t allow that, and there are potential, serious ramifications. So, just do it with your eyes open.”

Robb Kidd is an organizer for the advocacy group Rural Vermont, which has lobbied for this legislation for a decade.

“For years, Vermont farmers have been waiting for the federal laws to change,” Kidd said. “This is an important step that allows farmers to challenge an irrational law. We look forward to Governor Shumlin signing this historic legislation.”

Updated at 1:50 p.m. on May 14, 2013 with a clarification and the removal of a quote from Rep. Teo Zagar. 

Clarification: Hemp is a low-potency form of Cannabis, not marijuana. Marijuana also comes from the Cannabis genus. 

Andrew Stein

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