Dover, New Hampshire — Depending on who you ask, legalizing industrial hemp will either capitalize on an uncharted market or will make it easier to put drugs in the hands of children.
Ossipee Police Chief Richard Morgan expects the worst.
“Legalization of hemp is really a backdoor attempt to legalize marijuana. You’re going to increase the supply, which will lower the prices. That will give kids more access to it. It’s ridiculous,” said Morgan.
The debate gained momentum late last month, when the New Hampshire House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill that would allow farmers to grow hemp.
The bill was approved by a 199-168 vote and forwarded to the Senate. A hearing is to be held by the Senate Environment and Wildlife Committee on April 19.
Hemp is known for its strong fiber and can be used to make clothing, rope, body care products and paper. The Declaration of Independence, as advocates like to point out, was drafted on hemp paper.
Supporters have argued that hemp has been unfairly characterized as marijuana when it is in fact a harmless material — some characterize trying to get high on hemp like trying to get drunk on nonalcoholic beer.
Others, such as Morgan, fear industrial hemp legalization would “hamstring” the ability of law enforcement officials to control marijuana production.
“A person could drive through town with a bunch of green, leafy plants in the back, and as long as they have a permit, I couldn’t even establish probable cause to question them,” said Morgan.
Both marijuana and hemp are scientifically categorized as cannabis sativa, and are considered close relatives. The main difference is the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in both. THC is the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana has an average THC count of 3 percent. Industrial hemp contains a THC concentration of 0.3 percent or less.
In drafting the bill, state legislators argued industrial hemp “can serve to improve the state’s economy and agricultural viability and that the production of industrial hemp can be regulated so as not to interfere with the strict regulation of controlled substances.”
Farmers would have to obtain a license from the state’s commissioner of agriculture to grow or process hemp. The state would be the sole supplier of hemp seeds to farmers.
The hemp could only be grown with approval from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which some critics have said would render the state’s new law useless.
J. Lisbeth Olimpio, one of the four state representatives who sponsored the bill, said the new law actually makes it more likely the DEA would approve an application to grow hemp.
“It doesn’t guarantee it, it just opens the door,” said Olimpio, who represents Wakefield, Brookfield and Effingham in Carroll County.
A number of other safeguards were also added.
For example, farmers would be required to destroy any byproducts of hemp growth, including flowers and leaves, and would be strictly prohibited from selling them.
Licenses could be denied or revoked if the seller has any controlled drug-related criminal offenses within the past 10 years or if deemed a threat to public safety.
Representatives of the commissioner’s office would have the right to test hemp samples to ensure the levels of THC are within legal limits.
Supporters have also spoken of the bill’s economic benefits.
The state would establish a special revenue fund under the new law meant to help offset the cost of implementing the program.
Growers would have to pay a $25 license application fee, renewable after 24 months. There would be an additional annual charge each growing season equal to $5 an acre of land under cultivation, with a minimum fee of $100, plus an amount sufficient to cover crop sample testing.
Persuading the doubters
Swaying the skeptics will probably have to wait, should the bill become law, until people can actually see the benefits of hemp, say supporters.
“The people fixed on the idea that marijuana is hemp, I’m not going to change their mind,” said Olimpio.
The District 5 representative supports hemp use because it can be used to build products like roof shingles, clothing, and ropes.
A 12,000-year history of growth illustrates that hemp has a proven track record, she said.
“It grows wildly all over and nobody is picking it. Why can’t farmers sell this product?” said Olimpio.
Olimpio feels it’s unfair to compare marijuana to hemp because people would not be using hemp for illegal purposes, noting that many stores across the state already sell goods made from hemp.
One of those stores, Herbal Path in Dover, has a selection of goods made strictly from hemp.
For the nutrition guru, Herbal Path offers hemp fiber for its high levels of complex protein and low carbohydrates.
There’s also an array of handbags, briefcases, camera bags and notebook covers, all made from hemp.
Most of the products are shipped to the store from Canada, but the new law could make the items more accessible locally.
Cindy Hebbard, a herbalist and health educator at Herbal Path, said the staff tries to educate people on the differences between hemp and marijuana.
Hemp is a durable material that can be used to make any number of goods, said Hebbard. She has strong feelings towards those who are concerned marijuana could become legal next.
“This is a completely different plant. It does not produce THC. I think that’s a ridiculous fear,” said Hebbard. “Anyone who says something about this being the next step (to marijuana legalization) has no idea really what this whole thing is about.”
Shoppers are sometimes confused themselves about the differences between marijuana and hemp, but questions come more in the form of curiosity and an open-mindedness to try new things.
The staff at Herbal Path tries to educated shoppers on the health benefits of hemp in food forms like fiber and hemp seed oil, and its durability in handmade products.
In her personal opinion, Hebbard feels legally growing hemp would greatly benefit the state’s farming industry.
“Canada has a thriving hemp industry. Our farms are turning into condos and housing developments at pretty alarming rates. I think its a great way to save a number of family farms,” said Hebbard.
In Maine, there is no law on the books permitting the growth of industrial hemp.
The closest the Legislature has come was the passage of a bill in 2003 that allowed the Maine Agriculture Experiment Station at the University of Maine to explore the feasibility of hemp growth.
The study included analysis of required soils and growing conditions, seed availability and varieties, and environmental benefits, among others. No further hemp legislation has since been proposed.
No matter what studies take place, Morgan, the Ossipee police chief, strongly believes the similarities between the two are too time-consuming and costly to distinguish.
The chief said it was his understanding that, short of laboratory testing, it’s impossible for law enforcement officials to differentiate between marijuana and hemp.
If the bill were to pass the Senate, Morgan said he would expect the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police to lobby the governor for a veto — if the lobbying hasn’t started already.
“In a perfect world, a legitimate farmer would just grow hemp. This is not a perfect world,” said Morgan.
Copyright © 2005, Foster’s Daily Democrat. All rights reserved.