Industrial hemp advocates and supporters have been busy this legislative season, with bills to move toward legalizing the plant as a commercial product alive in three states. In North Dakota, the state legislature has already passed a hemp bill this year, while a New Hampshire hemp bill has passed one house. In Oregon, a senate committee held hearings on a hemp bill Wednesday, while hearings on a California hemp bill will come later this month.
While both hemp and marijuana are members of the cannabis family, they are distinct cultivars, with different appearances and wildly differing THC levels. The Hemp Industry Association's Test Pledge program guarantees that trace THC levels in hemp products are so low they do not produce false-positives in drug tests. Despite the loud and oft-repeated concerns of police and prohibitionists, industrial hemp does not contain enough THC to get anyone high.
Still, hemp advocates face a tough road, with prohibitionists determined to fight any effort to regularize the world-renowned fiber and oil source for fear that it will somehow open the floodgates to the legalization of smokeable marijuana. But they push on ahead anyway, and have now won a victory on the High Plains and are close in New England.
In North Dakota, Gov. John Hoeven (R) signed into law HB 1492 on March 9. The bill does not legalize hemp production, but does direct the University of North Dakota to start storing "feral hemp seed" for the time when hemp production becomes legal under federal law. Supported by farmers, businessmen, and political leaders, the bill passed the House 87-3 and the Senate 46-0.
North Dakota has been a leader in hemp legislation, and the new law builds on a 1999 state law authorizing hemp farming—the first in the country. But the state has not acted on that legislation in the face of a federal ban on hemp production.
Sponsored by longtime hemp advocate Rep. David Monson (R-Osnabrock), who has been trying since 1997 to win federal government approval to grow hemp at NDSU research plots, the bill seeks to strengthen the state's feral hemp (also known as "ditchweed") stocks for the time when hemp production is legal.
In heavily agricultural North Dakota, farmers and politicians alike are seeing dollar signs in the hemp stalks. "I believe it would be a great cash crop for our farmers if that is what they choose to produce," Rep. Andy Maragos (D-Minot) told the Minot Daily News. "I hope this legislation improves that environment."
Two weeks later, legislators in the New Hampshire House passed a hemp bill that would allow farmers to apply for a state license to grow industrial hemp. Under the bill, applicants must have no criminal record and plant at least five acres per year. The New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture would supply seed to farmers to ensure that only low-THC hemp plants are sown.
The New Hampshire bill now goes to the state Senate, with a hearing set for the Senate's Environment and Wildlife Committee on April 19. While the bill appears to have momentum, however, it still faces opposition. During the House hearings, for instance, Rep. Peter Batula (R-Merrimack) repeated a hoary canard favored by prohibitionists. Smoking hemp, said Batula, can cause hallucinogenic effects similar to marijuana and is bad for kids. "We don't need fields of this marijuana plant out there for picking at harvest time," Batula said.
"This is not marijuana," retorted Rep. Derek Owen (D-Hopkinton). "This is hemp. Hemp is one of the oldest, most useful plants known to man," he explained.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, the state Senate Environment and Land Use Committee held hearings Wednesday on a bill that would allow for the production, possession, and trade in industrial hemp products and commodities. Under the bill, SB394, the State Department of Agriculture would be authorized to administer a program of licensing, permitting, and inspection for hemp growers and processors. There were no reports on the hearing available at press time.
And in California, hearings are set for April 27 on a bill, AB1147, introduced by San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno. That bill would allow farmers to apply for state licenses to grow hemp and is similar to regulations on hemp production in countries where it is legal, such as Canada and the European Union. The bill would also instruct the University of California to conduct research on industrial hemp applications.
The battle for industrial hemp continues, and while progress is achingly slow, it has come -- at least in North Dakota. New Hampshire may be next, and while there are no guarantees in California and Oregon, the issue is at least on the table.