MONTPELIER — A local farming group is cheering a Department of Justice memorandum that it said could clear the way for the worry-free cultivation of hemp by the 2014 growing season.
A DOJ directive issued late last month announced the federal agency would be taking a hands-off approach to producers and sellers of marijuana in two states that recently legalized the drug. But agriculture officials said the ruling could also have a significant impact on states that have legalized hemp, which is a form of cannabis that lacks any psychotropic power but is nonetheless classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic by the federal government.
“The federal definition of hemp is the same as for marijuana, so any ruling that the Justice Department has given regarding marijuana should apply to hemp as well, according to the legal opinions I’ve been given,” said Rob Kidd, an organizer with Rural Vermont.
Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year signed into law a bill that legalized the cultivation of hemp in Vermont. But while the statute freed would-be growers from prosecution by the state, the prospect of federal interdiction, and the destruction of crops or seizure of land that might accompany an arrest, dampened farmers’ enthusiasm for taking advantage of the new law.
One of the few farmers to publicly announce his intention to grow hemp in Vermont had planned on purchasing a small plot of land through a separate limited liability company, so as to protect his assets from forfeiture should federal officers opt to prosecute.
Kidd said the federal government’s policy against interfering with the legal marijuana trade in Colorado and Washington — the states adopted a tax-and-regulate model in public referenda — likely means prospective hemp growers can breathe easy in Vermont.
This morning in Montpelier, Rural Vermont will host a press conference at which they are expected to hoist over the Statehouse lawn a U.S. flag woven from hemp fiber. Hemp proponents are expected to tout the economic benefits of a plant that generates higher per-acre monetary yields than most conventional crops.
“We have purposefully kept the debate over hemp separate from the debate over marijuana, because they’re two very different things,” Kidd said. “But this federal decision in response to new marijuana laws definitely looks to have some implications on what we’ve been trying to do.”
Kidd said his organization is looking for clarification from federal officials confirming the directive will also apply to hemp. Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, took testimony from the DOJ on its marijuana policy last week, though the issue of hemp never arose.
A Leahy spokesman said that the Democratic senator would be submitting written questions to the DOJ addressing the hemp issue specifically.
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