After years of debate the possibility of legally growing hemp in New Hampshire is closer than ever, thanks partly to growing acceptance of its bad-boy sibling, marijuana, and partly to the exploding market for CBD, a product of hemp oil being marketed for a slew of wellness applications.
“With CDB oil, this is a high-value crop,” said Rep. Peter Bixby, D-Dover, prime sponsor of a bill to legalize hemp growing in New Hampshire.
The bill, which has passed the House and got a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Natural Resources committee, is quite different from one approved in past sessions because of changes in federal policy. The 2018 Farm Bill signed by Pres. Trump in December removed a previous need to proceed through pilot programs and said that within some limits, states can proceed as they see fit – hence the new state bill.
Even if it passes the state Senate, it is unclear whether Gov. Sununu’s loud opposition to legalizing marijuana will affect his opinion of hemp, which is the same plant but is bred to be much more fibrous and to have no psychotropic qualities.
If it gets approved, Bixby said, growers could have a crop in the ground in 2020 under federal regulations, even though state guidelines probably wouldn’t be ready until the following year.
Supporters have trying for years, perhaps decades, to get hemp-growing legalized in New Hampshire, arguing that it creates another cash crop for small farmers and trotting out arguments like George Washington’s fondness for the plant. Despite occasional whiffs of success – a pro-hemp bill passed the New Hampshire House in 2013 but died in the Senate – they always foundered on the plant’s connections with marijuana.
Last year’s changes in the federal Farm Bill reflect how hemp is starting to shrug off that connection.
“Mitch McConnell is not a supporter of marijuana, but he is going all-in for hemp,” said Bixby, referring to the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, a senator from Kentucky. Bixby said Kentucky is looking at hemp as a commercial crop to replace the fading prospects of tobacco.
“They’re going for it big time. We’re not looking to do it big time,” he added.
Hemp is defined as Cannabis sativa, one of the strains of marijuana. It has been bred to contain very little THC – the federal definition says three-tenths of a percent or less – and to be much more fibrous than cannabis which is grown to be smoked. Hemp fibers have long been used to make rope and fabric, which were the main commercial products of the plant until interest in CBD grew.
CBD, or Cannabidiol, is one of the byproducts of the cannabis plant that is touted to help with a variety of conditions, from depression and chronic pain to high blood pressure and even addiction to certain substances. Research is still limited and health claims have far outpaced medical evidence but enthusiasm for the product has grown sharply in the past year. Since CBD from hemp plant contains little or no THC, it can be consumed with concerns of illegality or intoxication; it is often marketed as “hemp oil.”
One of the questions that needs to be answered before hemp can be legal in New Hampshire is whether there would be a state license for growing the crop or whether it could only be grown under a federal license.
A state license would cost more in staffing and time to determine, for example, that hemp plants have less than the maximum level of THC, the chemical that makes cannabis psychoactive. But federal agricultural licensing isn’t always popular in the Live Free or Die state.
“We’re not crazy about inviting federal inspectors to come onto our farms,” commented Shawn Jasper, the state commissioner of agriculture.
Jasper also expressed concern that the federal status of hemp might change, stranding New Hampshire farmers who invested in specialized hemp equipment.
“It’s not just using your regular seeder and harvester,” he said.
There is also a question about hemp seed added to foods. That would require oversight by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Agriculture.
And finally, for the detail-oriented, there is disagreement whether the bill should talk about “industrial hemp,” a term chosen by a House study committee to emphasize its difference from marijuana, or just “hemp,” to match terminology used in federal regulations and laws.