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Vt. Senate weighs industrial hemp bill

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By CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — The Vermont Senate is considering a bill to legalize industrial hemp for growth and sale in Vermont. Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, one of bill H.267’s sponsors in the Vermont House of Representatives, said that hemp could make a new, very versatile crop for Vermont’s agricultural industry.

“I’ve been hearing for a long time that this was an important crop for Vermont farmers to grow,” Fisher said.

Hemp can be used for a wide variety of products, including textiles, biodegradable plastics, biofuels and even food. However, it is closely related to cannabis sativa, better known as marijuana. “Law enforcement has said for a long time that they don’t want us to grow hemp because it looks like marijuana,” Fisher said.

Industrial hemp produces far too little of the chemical compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to be usable as a drug. Fisher explained that his hemp bill, H.267, includes a number of requirements to ensure that hemp farmers are not growing plants high in THC. A farmer applying for a permit would have to go through a background check, get fingerprinted, report the exact area and location where hemp would be grown, keep production and sales records for at least three years, and more.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the Vermont House, 126-9, on Feb. 7. All area House members voted in favor of the bill. It is now in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, and Sen. Harold Giard, D-Addison County and Brandon, was optimistic about the bill passing the Senate as well, though no date for a vote on it has been set.

Gov. Douglas could not be reached for comment, but his spokesman, Jason Gibbs, said that Douglas did not think the issue was very important.

“The governor doesn’t view this bill as a priority, particularly because the federal government continues to prohibit industrial hemp cultivation,” Gibbs wrote in an e-mail. “He would much rather see the Legislature spend its time considering the economic development, health care, housing and property tax and middle income property tax relief packages he has proposed.”

However, Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, said that hemp could be a profitable crop thus helping Vermont’s economy and struggling agricultural sector.

“In this day and age when we’re looking for as many tools for the farmer’s toolbox, this is one that we might as well get in line for,” he said.

Giard agreed.

“I don’t see any reason to veto this, I really don’t,” he said. “You can’t smoke this stuff, and it’s another crop for agriculture.”

The House Agriculture committee reported on the many possible uses for industrial hemp:

• Seeds and oil produced from the seeds have high nutritional value, including healthy fats and protein, and could be used as food.

• As a fiber crop, industrial hemp can be used in making clothing, building supplies and animal bedding.

• As a renewable energy source, industrial hemp seeds can be processed into biodiesel, and stalks can be pelletized or flaked for burning or processed for cellulosic ethanol. Netaka White, executive director of the Vermont Biofuels Association, said that recent studies have shown that hemp produces as much biomass for fuel production as switchgrass, a prairie grass believed to hold promise for use as fuel.

Building infrastructure to take advantage of these possible uses of hemp could result in increased business opportunities and new jobs in Vermont, legislators report.

The committee also said that farmers in Canada report an $800 per acre return when planting industrial hemp.

Similar bills have been proposed several times in recent years but failed to pass, according White, but the political climate has probably grown more favorable to the idea.

“Our need for products from industrial hemp has increased,” White said.

Several other states have also passed industrial hemp legalization laws of their own in recent years. The United States is one of the few country in the developed world with such a ban, Giard said.

Stevens pointed out that last year North Dakota passed a bill similar to H.267. He said the Vermont Legislature hopes that the trend of states legalizing the product might lead to change in federal policy.

“If and when this changes at the federal level, Vermont will be prepared,” Stevens said. “If enough states pass legislation like this, pressure may be brought to bear on the federal government.”

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