By Rachel M. Collins, Boston Globe
Walpole, New Hampshire — Sheldon Sawyer doesn’t fit the popular image of the pro-hemp movement. With his salt-and-pepper hair, bib overalls, and stocky build, the 64-year-old second-generation dairy farmer from Walpole admits he stands in sharp contrast to the “earrings, long hair, and people eating vegetables instead of red meat” that many people may think of when they hear the word hemp. But that’s one of the reasons Sawyer said he joined the fight to see New Hampshire approve the farming of hemp, an herb that is part of the same family as marijuana.
The participation by him and others in the fight appears to be giving an added level of legitimacy to the movement, which got a boost earlier this month. The state Legislature gave initial approval on Jan. 5 to a bill that could legalize a hemp industry here.
Sawyer said he didn’t want those who rely on tilling the soil for their living to bypass an opportunity. So, although he doesn’t plan to grow hemp, he testified before lawmakers advocating for farmers’ right to plant the crop. “If someone wants to turn the land they’re paying taxes on into a crop that he thinks can make a profit, why shouldn’t he?” asked Sawyer. “We ought to have a right to grow it, if there’s no reason that’s knowledgeable why we can’t.” But like a mild-mannered teen who has to carry around the baggage of an unruly brother, hemp is seldom referred to without a mention of marijuana. Both are annual herbaceous cannabis sativa plants and both contain THC – or tetrahydrocannabinol – an illegal substance that is smoked to get high. But advocates point out that the hemp that can be grown legally in most countries has a .3 percent THC content, while the THC in marijuana ranges from 3 percent to 14 percent.
The New Hampshire bill’s sponsor, Democratic Representative Derek Owen – a Hopkinton family farmer, barn restorer, and stone wall builder – sent out a survey last year to the state’s roughly 3,000 farmers. He asked them to return a card if they were interested in at least looking into the idea of growing hemp. About 360 responded.
Much of the interest appears to be economic. Hemp, according to industry estimates, grosses between $308 and $410 an acre, about three times as much as wheat. For the last several years, Owen and Representative Amy Robb-Theroux, a Claremont Democrat, have been pushing the hemp initiative at every opportunity.
Robb-Theroux is quick to point out that hemp was widely grown in the United States in Colonial times, as well as during World War II. She says the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence reportedly was written on hemp, which was also used widely in the making of ships’ sails, ropes, clothing, and machine oil.
It wasn’t until marijuana was outlawed in the late 1930s that hemp became illegal, although products made from hemp, such as shoes, clothing, cereals, and body moisturizers, still are sold legally in the United States. Today 33 countries grow hemp, including Canada for the past six years – the last two years commercially. In the past few years, 16 US states have considered a bill or resolution to allow the growing of hemp, said John Howell, publisher of the New York City-based Hemp Times magazine. Howell, who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, is scheduled to testify before a House committee here this week. He has been active in many fights across the country to legalize hemp growing.
Last year, Minnesota and North Dakota passed laws allowing the growing of hemp. Hawaii voted to allow it to be farmed experimentally at the state university.
“This is not some weird radical experiment,” Howell said. “It’s an attempt to help save agriculture.” Hemp still faces an uphill battle in New Hampshire, where the bill faces scrutiny by some key committees, the Senate, and the governor. The issue is expected to be resolved one way or the other before the legislative session ends in May.
Steve Taylor, New Hampshire’s commissioner of agriculture, said the state’s farm receipts are up 10 percent from 1992, largely because of “niche agriculture” – a category into which he would put hemp. He said more farmers are supplementing their income with things like greenhouses, “pick your-own” ventures, and market gardens. “Hemp is a very logical crop,” he said. “It was widely grown in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it’s ideal for the kinds of soils and climate we have in New England.” Still, opponents include many in the law enforcement industry, as well as the Legislature.
“Legalizing this directly contradicts what we are telling kids,” said Representative Tony Soltani, an Epsom Republican and a lawyer. “A little bit of money is not worth it.” As Soltani described it, the THC that hemp has “is what puts a smile on your face and gives you the munchies.” But Robb Theroux, who has made legalizing hemp one of her primary goals in the Legislature since being elected in 1997, said growing hemp is about making money, not drugs.
“It’s an insult to our intellect, one, that as human beings that we cannot differentiate between the two [hemp and marijuana],” she said. Detective Sergeant Paul Henry of the Ontario Provincial Police drug enforcement unit said that since Canada began allowing the growing of hemp, there have been a few cases in which teenagers have stolen the herb from fields. Soon, he said, they “find out you have to smoke a truckload to get high.” “In my opinion, I don’t believe that growing hemp in itself has made any significant increase” in drug problems, Henry said. However, he added, legalizing hemp runs the risk of giving the public the misperception that the police are softening their stance against marijuana use. If the main problems involve misperceptions, education is the answer, said Steve Welebny, a Hopkinton farmer who grows organic vegetables and is researching the possibility of growing hemp. Awareness campaigns are already helping in New Hampshire, he said.
“I think over time the attitude has shifted from tossing the idea out of hand to seeing if maybe there is something to this being a viable product for farmers to grow,” Welebny said. “The attitude seems to be changing from making fun of it to maybe this is a useful product.” But most farmers interviewed still have a wait-and-see attitude. “I need to find out what the going rate is, where I can sell it, and what kind of shape does it need to be in,” said Fritz Haser, a Canterbury farmer who raises produce and horses. “I’m not ready to commit until I get all those answers.”
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