MONTPELIER – Gov. James Douglas will allow a bill legalizing hemp to become law despite concerns from the law enforcement community about its impact on marijuana eradication efforts in the state.
The legislation, which legalizes the cultivation of industrial hemp in Vermont, won nearly unanimous support in the both the House and Senate this session. Though Douglas doesn't support the bill, and has refused to attach his signature to it, he will nonetheless forward the legislation to the Secretary of State, which will effectively enact the law.
"It's a do-nothing bill," Douglas spokesman Jason Gibbs said Thursday. "The federal law still prohibits the cultivation of industrial hemp, and so the practical impact of this legislation is virtually nothing."
Douglas could have vetoed the legislation, an option he considered after law enforcement officials raised concerns. But Gibbs said Douglas does not "exercise his veto authority lightly," and that the bill is too insignificant to warrant such an extreme action.
"The consequence of this bill is so low, so insignificant, that it doesn't rise to the level of a gubernatorial veto," Gibbs said.
Farmers won't be able to grow hemp crops just yet. Federal statute, which supercedes state law, draws no distinction between hemp and marijuana, and anyone growing either is subject to prosecution.
But Tom Tremblay, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said he worries about what the legislation means for law enforcement officers in Vermont if the federal law does change.
"The plants are really difficult to differentiate," Tremblay said. "The legalization of industrial hemp could increase production of marijuana."
Hemp and marijuana are in the same species of flora. THC, the intoxicating compound in marijuana, exists in hemp but at much lower levels. Vermont's law classifies hemp as a cannabis sativa plant with less than .2 percent THC. Marijuana generally has a THC content of at least 5 percent.
Tremblay, though, said that proving in a criminal court that the marijuana they seized isn't actually hemp means an expensive and laborious testing protocol that the state's crime labs are ill-equipped to take on.
"It would require the crime lab to basically develop some kind of chemical analysis, so we'd have to purchase special equipment and conduct special training, which would be expensive and time consuming," Tremblay said. "I, for one, would rather have the crime lab focusing on the very serious cases we're dealing with now."
Lawmakers this session heard testimony from authorities in Canada – where hemp cultivation is legal – who said they have no trouble distinguishing the plants. That testimony was compelling enough for Rep. Jim McNeil, a Rutland Town Republican on the House Agriculture Committee that drafted the original bill.
"You can smoke as much hemp as you want and you just get a massive headache," McNeil said. "And you can tell the difference between the crops from a distance – you don't have to be right up on top of it."
McNeil said he supports the legislation because of the potential impact it could have on agriculture in the state.
"It could be a viable rotation crop for farmers, and I think it could spur a lot of small businesses," he said.
Hemp, grown legally in every industrialized country except the United States, reaps attractive profit margins for some farmers. Hemp oil, derived from seeds, is used in food and beauty products. Hemp's long stalks contain fiber and cellulose that can be made into textiles, building materials and fuel.
Amy Shollenberger, director of Rural Vermont, said the law positions Vermont farmers to capitalize on the hemp boon when the federal statute finally does change.
"I think Vermont's best hope is to do as much as it can to build local economies, and I think hemp can be a big factor in building that economy," Shollenberger said.
Vermont businesses already selling hemp products, she said, are clamoring for locally sourced hemp.
Anna Barrett, marketing director for Way Out Wax in Morrisville, said her company, which sells candles and other natural products, would prefer to purchase its hemp ingredients from local farmers.
"It's an amazing crop that has so many applications," Barrett said. "We could make hemp wax candles. People are always looking for hemp oils because they're so healthy and good for you. I really think there's a market here."
Andrew Meyer, co-owner of Vermont Soy in Hardwick, said the hemp industry might also spur in-state processing facilities that could strengthen the manufacturing sector in Vermont.
"If you have a source of hemp, and a demand for its products, you could potentially see processing facilities around the state," he said.
Gibbs said Vermonters would have been better served had their Legislature focused on issues other than hemp.
"The time the Legislature spent on this issue would have been better spent addressing property taxes or health care costs or reducing regulatory barriers to job creation," Gibbs said.MORE IN Central Vermont
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