By Gene Johnson, Boston Globe
State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor says legalizing hemp would be a blessing for New Hampshire farmers who have been hurt by a dwindling demand for hay.
“If they can do it in Canada, then goddamn it let’s figure a way to do it here,” Taylor said Thursday.
Taylor testified in favor of a bill to let farmers apply for federal permits to grow hemp, a close relative of marijuana. The bill was approved by the House this month and now is being considered by the Finance Committee.
Police and safety officials oppose the bill. They say legalizing hemp would make it tougher to enforce marijuana laws and could encourage drug use among teens.
Taylor acknowledged their concerns, but said lawmakers should find a way to assuage them.
“There appear to be some significant opportunities here,” Taylor said. “But in some way or fashion, these law enforcement people have got to be made happy.”
Hemp has about 0.3 percent THC, the chemical in marijuana that gives a high. Marijuana available on the street contains about 15 percent to 20 percent THC, officials say.
Growing hemp is legal in Canada, Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota, and several other states are considering hemp legislation. The plant is used in a wide range of products, from clothing to building materials to skin lotions.
In Canada, hemp farmers clear the equivalent of about $200 in U.S. currency per acre, making it extremely profitable, said John Howell, a part-time Tamworth resident who heads a company called Planet Hemp. He said about 90 percent of the hemp processed in Canada finds its way to the United States.
“The market is here, so we want to locate the raw material here,” Howell said.
Taylor said about 350 New Hampshire farmers have expressed an interest in growing hemp.
Supporters also circulated a letter to the Finance Committee from Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, a chain of stores that sells skin-care products.
“Our faith in industrial hemp as the crop of the future means that we will support the farmers who grow it, in New Hampshire and elsewhere. In 1999, The Body Shop bought $108,553 worth of hempseed oil. We anticipate this figure will almost double in the coming year,” the letter reads. Mark Lathrop, a Chesterfield farmer, said Roddick promised to buy his entire crop of hempseed if the bill passes.
“I’m not even putting my seed in the ground yet, and my harvest has been sold,” Lathrop said. “I’d be able to pay my mortgage. There’s a concept.”
But state Assistant Safety Commissioner John Stephen said any possible financial benefits would not be worth it.
“Legalizing hemp would create a perception of marijuana legalization in this state, and that perception would, we feel, lead to an increase in marijuana use among teens,” Stephen said.
Stephen said it would also cost the state financially by opening the door for people caught with marijuana to use the “It’s only hemp” defense. Prosecutors would then have to test the substance to prove it is marijuana.
And to do that, the state would have to buy a new $55,000 machine that could distinguish between marijuana and hemp, and possibly hire someone to run it, Stephen said.
Berlin Police Lt. Peter Morency questioned the notion that hemp is the plant of the future. He said worldwide production has dropped 25 percent in the last 30 years.
Committee member Robert Boyce, R-Alton, said the issue isn’t about money at all. He said supporters just want to make it easier to grow pot.
“This is not a bill about an agricultural product. It’s a bill about marijuana,” Boyce said.
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