By Lori Montgomery, Washington Post
Maryland yesterday became the fourth state in the nation to authorize the production of hemp, a hardy fibrous crop with many commercial uses that sponsors hope will offer Maryland farmers a profitable alternative to tobacco.
There’s just one drawback: Hemp is also known as marijuana. And under federal drug laws, it is illegal.
But with a growing number of states showing interest in the crop to help bolster their sagging farm economies, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is reviewing its hard-line stance against hemp production. And Maryland officials are optimistic that the DEA will permit them to implement their four-year pilot program.
“We’re growing rope, not pot,” said Charles Puffinberger, an assistant secretary in the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “Maybe if we all gang up on the DEA, they might give in and say, ‘Go ahead. Grow whatever you want.’”
Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a bill into law yesterday to create the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, authorizing state agriculture officials to design a tightly regulated program to grow hemp on state-owned land. Interested farmers would face an extensive criminal background check and be licensed by the DEA. State police could search the site at any time.
The law, which takes effect July 1, would also require agriculture officials to closely control the supply of hemp seeds, which are classified as a controlled substance. The seeds must be imported from Canada or abroad with DEA approval, Puffinberger said.
The measure sailed through the recent legislative session with little controversy, drawing eight negative votes in both chambers. But none of the measure’s sponsors showed up to be photographed with Glendening (D) during the bill-signing ceremony, a popular event that normally draws crowds of supporters.
Indeed, the only person to join Glendening and legislative leaders in the hemp bill picture was Joyce Nalepka, of Silver Spring, an anti-drug activist who flashed a bumper sticker behind the governor’s head that said, “Boycott Pot (and all hemp products).”
“I am furious over the fact that this bill has passed,” Nalepka said. “Hemp is marijuana is cannabis sativa is pot. As a mother, it is my belief that marijuana is absolutely our most dangerous drug.”
Most experts recognize a difference between the two varieties of the hemp plant, or cannabis sativa. One, marijuana, contains high levels of a psychoactive chemical known as THC. The other, industrial hemp, contains very low levels of THC. It reportedly gives those who try to smoke it little more than a headache.
Still, federal law classifies both types of cannabis as a narcotic. Other than Maryland, only Hawaii, North Dakota and Minnesota have laws allowing hemp production. All were passed last year. Both Minnesota and North Dakota allow farmers statewide to grow hemp.
In Virginia, lawmakers passed a resolution last year urging federal officials to “revise the necessary regulations” to permit experimental hemp production there.
Hawaii is the only state so far to receive DEA approval to plant hemp. The seeds were sown in December, the nation’s first legal hemp patch in nearly 50 years.
The DEA imposed serious security measures. Hawaii’s hemp is guarded by a 24-hour alarm system and a six-foot-high fence topped with razor wire, Puffinberger said—expensive restrictions that would be difficult to duplicate on Maryland’s budget.
DEA spokeswoman Rogene Waite said the agency is reviewing its security restrictions for growing drugs such as marijuana in light of the states’ concerns.
Whatever security measures the state would take, Nalepka believes it wouldn’t be enough. “I don’t care if the governor himself goes out there with an Uzi and stands at the gate.” Kids, she said, will still try to smoke it.
The other big question is whether hemp will be a hit with farmers.
Del. Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore), the measure’s chief sponsor, has no doubt that farmers will find hemp “the way to go.”
But one of the legislature’s few tobacco farmers, Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Charles), was less than enthusiastic.
“I’ll stick with my Marlboros, thank you,” he said smiling.
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