BOSTON, Mass. (Aug 3, 2017) – A Massachusetts cannabis bill signed by the governor last week legalizes commercial industrial hemp production in the state, but its effect will depend on how state departments ultimately write and enforce the rules.
Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure to legalize marijuana and hemp in 2016, but the state legislature almost immediately began working on legislation to make changes to the voter approved law. The House and Senate passed separate measures that differed on various issues from taxation to specific provisions on possession and cultivation of marijuana. When a conference committee failed to reach a compromise by a self-imposed July 1 deadline, legislators went behind closed doors and hammered out a compromise bill.
The legislation includes provisions legalizing commercial hemp production.
Industrial hemp may be planted, grown, harvested, possessed, processed, bought, sold or researched subject to sections 116 to 123. The planting, growing, harvesting, possessing, selling or research of industrial hemp as an agricultural product shall be subject to the supervision and approval of the department pursuant to sections 116 to 123, inclusive
A person planting, growing, harvesting, possessing, processing or selling industrial hemp for commercial purposes shall: (i) be licensed by the department pursuant to section 118; and (ii) only acquire hemp seeds from a distributor approved by the department.
Hemp shall only be used for the following: (i) research purposes; and (ii) commercial purposes considered reasonable by the commissioner.
The language in the law leaves a great deal of latitude in rule-writing and licensing requirements. It could open the door for widespread commercial hemp production in the state, despite federal regulations. Or it could lead to very limited commercial production only within federally approved pilot programs.
FEDERAL FARM BILL
Early in 2014, President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill into law, which included a provision allowing a handful of states to begin limited research programs growing hemp. The “hemp amendment”
…allows State Agriculture Departments, colleges and universities to grow hemp, defined as the non-drug oil-seed and fiber varieties of Cannabis, for academic or agricultural research purposes, but it applies only to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law.
In short, current federal law authorizes the farming of hemp – by research institutions, or within state pilot programs, for research only. Farming for commercial purposes by individuals and businesses remains prohibited.
Passage of HB3818 opens the door for Massachusetts farmers to ignore federal prohibition and grow hemp anyway. While prospective hemp growers would still have to take federal law into consideration, by eliminating the state requirement for federal permission the law potentially clears away a major obstacle to widespread commercial hemp farming within Massachusetts’ borders. But if the state writes the rules and licensing requirements to conform to federal law, it will vastly limit the development of a hemp industry in the state. West Virginia recently passed legislation expanding its hemp licensing scheme and scrapping federal compliance after recognizing adherence to federal mandates was inhibiting the growth of a viable hemp industry.
By rejecting any need for federal approval, HB3818 sets the stage to nullify the federal hemp ban in practice. Massachusetts could join with other states – including Colorado, Oregon, Maine, California and Vermont – that have simply ignored federal prohibition and legalized industrial hemp production within their state borders.
Farmers in SE Colorado started harvesting the plant in 2013, and farmers in Vermont began harvesting in 2014, effectively nullifying federal restrictions on such agricultural activities. On Feb. 2, 2105, the Oregon hemp industry officially opened for business and one week later, the first license went to a small non-profit group. As more people engage in hemp production and the market grows within these states, more people will become emboldened creating an exponential wave, ultimately nullifying the federal ban in effect.
HUGE MARKET FOR HEMP
According to a 2005 Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. is the only developed nation that hasn’t developed an industrial hemp crop for economic purposes.
Experts suggest that the U.S. market for hemp is around $600 million per year. They count as many as 25,000 uses for industrial hemp, including food, cosmetics, plastics and bio-fuel. The U.S. is currently the world’s #1 importer of hemp fiber for various products, with China and Canada acting as the top two exporters in the world.
During World War II, the United States military relied heavily on hemp products, which resulted in the famous campaign and government-produced film, “Hemp for Victory!”