AUGUSTA, Maine — Farmers, organic growers, agricultural researchers and community members have thrown their support behind a bill moving through the Legislature to legalize hemp cultivation in Maine for industrial uses.
“Maine has an opportunity to break into an emerging industry that will be of tremendous benefit to our state,” Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who introduced the measure, said recently. “Not only would it open new opportunities for farmers, it would also provide local sourcing for many products made from hemp. The fibers from hemp can be used in textiles, paper, insulation, building materials and composites for auto bodies.”
Hemp fibers and marijuana, however, come from the same family of plants, which is why hemp still is considered a drug under federal law. Supporters point out, though, that the variety of Cannabis sativa used for industrial hemp contains far less of the chemical ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which is responsible for the high marijuana users feel.
Three states — Colorado, Kentucky and Vermont — have legalized industrial hemp and have research crops planted, according to Vote Hemp, an organization seeking the full normalization of and a free market for industrial hemp in the United States.
Another 22 states, including Maine, have introduced legislation to support research or cultivation of hemp for commercial use.
Maine lawmakers have been grappling with industrial hemp legislation since the beginning of this century and actually passed a law in 2009 that would allow growing hemp commercially, but only when it becomes legal under federal law.
President Barack Obama signed the 2014 Farm Act on Feb. 7, 2014, that included a section allowing industrial hemp to be cultivated, but only for agricultural and academic research.
Another bill to allow hemp cultivation for commercial uses sailed through the Maine Legislature last year only to die because of tight state budget issues and the need to come up with about $40,000 to set up the licensing process for potential growers.
The current legislation — LD 4, An Act to Promote Industrial Hemp — calls for licensing fees that should be “reasonable and necessary to cover the costs of the department” and would be set at the discretion of the Maine Commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Another option put forth has private funds being raised to help the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry meet some or all of the extra expenses, according to Chris Lyons of Brunswick. Lyons is in the process of setting up a mutual benefits corporation called Osundu Co-op, which will operate as a cooperative and apply for a license to cultivate hemp if the bill passes.
“This bill creates opportunity for the creation of more economic and ecological opportunities for the people of Maine,” Lyons said recently.
He also stressed the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp, pointing out that low-THC hemp “is not suitable as a psychoactive drug. … It would take about a pound of it to get high and the person would get very sick. They would feel really, really bad.”
Industrial hemp can be used in the production of a wide range of products, including foods and beverages, cosmetics and personal care products, and nutritional supplements, as well as fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibers, paper, construction and insulation materials, and other manufactured goods.
In 2012, the U.S. hemp industry was valued at an estimated $500 million in annual retail sales and growing for all hemp products, according to the Hemp Industries Association, a nonprofit trade organization consisting of hundreds of hemp businesses.
There is bipartisan support for Republican Sanderson’s bill. Legislators who have endorsed the bill include Reps. Adam Goode, D-Bangor, Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, and Michael Shaw, D-Standish.
And none of the 10 people who testified spoke against the measure during a public hearing on the bill on Feb. 10 before the legislative committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry at the State House in Augusta.
Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau testified that the cultivation of industrial hemp was discussed at an Aroostook County Farm Bureau meeting, and farmers felt that it could be another crop they could grow and add to their rotation.
“This could be a value-added crop that could help them,” he said.
He said the bureau also opposes the federal classification of industrial hemp as a controlled substance.
Heather Spaulding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, also testified that her group was behind the bill.
“Passage … would speed up the eligibility for Maine farmers to add one more
crop to their farm production,” she said. “Industrial hemp is environmentally friendly to grow and has a multitude of potential uses that fit with Maine’s increasing interest in producing healthful, organic grains and oils and in fabricating biologically-based products, such as bioplastlcs.”
Though she testified neither for nor against the bill, Ann Gibbs, acting director of the animal and plant health division for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, did raise some concerns.
She said that technically it is not illegal to grow hemp in Maine but that is it classified as a “drug” under the Federal Controlled Substance Act. That means any production is strictly controlled and hemp cannot be grown legally without a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Currently, the DEA has issued permits only to the state Department of Agriculture or to universities for research.
Certified seed from Canada, where hemp production has been legal nationally since 1998, is more likely to be true hemp seed with the low-THC levels, she said, but DEA restrictions may make it difficult for Maine producers to import for commercial use.
Gibbs pointed out in her testimony how 200 applicants in Colorado had filed requests to plant 1,800 acres. Because of difficulties obtaining seed legally, however, only 150 acres were planted.
She added that the Colorado Department of Agriculture ended up incurring additional expenses to get the program off the ground there because of the assistance it had to provide in dealing with federal regulations and helping to obtain seed.
“The same issue would occur in Maine,” Gibbs said.
She also testified that the department felt it important to include provisions in the legislation to document the origin and type of seed to ensure that quality seed is planted. She noted that it is a requirement of several plant certification programs within the state, including for grain and seed potato growers.
Sanderson later testified that Unity College had already stepped forward to create a research program to develop a quality control program for industrial hemp seed. It would provide farmers with the approved certified hemp seed varieties that grow in Maine soils.
During her testimony, Gibbs also said the department believes it is important to make sure the legislation requires criminal background checks since hemp is so closely related to marijuana. Anyone with a prior criminal conviction should not be eligible for receiving a license to grow hemp, Gibbs testified.
She concluded that the department should support the introduction of new crops for Maine growers and that hemp seems to have potential.
But she added, “Probably the best way to start a hemp industry in a state is to focus on research and not commercial production.”
Still, Lyons said he felt that committee members were very receptive to the testimony provided during the Feb. 10 hearing.
“I think it will pass in the House and Senate,” he said. “It got great support from the committee last year, unanimous support. It was only torpedoed due to the licensing costs.”
Spaulding of MOFGA testified, “The possibilities, even with the federal government, are opening up significantly and Maine should take advantage of the renewed opportunities.”
The bill is scheduled for further review on Feb. 24.