March 11, 2019

CT eyes first realistic attempt at hemp legalization

HBJ File Photo
HBJ File Photo
Don Tuller is seen in one of Tulmeadow Farm’s greenhouses where vegetables and other plants are grown. The West Simsbury farmer is one of hundreds in Connecticut planning to cultivate industrial hemp, if the plant is legalized.
Joe Courtney, U.S. Congressman (D-2nd District)
Bryan Hurlburt, Executive Director, Connecticut Farm Bureau

With recent federal clearance and backing from Gov. Ned Lamont, Connecticut farmers are growing optimistic the state is finally positioned to develop a hemp program that would allow the industry to tap into a multibillion-dollar market.

Attached to the Democratic governor's two-year, $43 billion state budget is a 30-page bill that would legalize a pilot program allowing the production and sale of hemp, which is a type of cannabis plant that produces a non-intoxicating substance — cannabidiol or CBD — that can be used for pain relief and to treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, acne and serious diseases like diabetes or multiple sclerosis, among other uses.

Lamont's proposal follows Congress' decision in December to lift federal prohibitions on commercial hemp manufacturing, which had long been considered illegal because of its perceived similarities to marijuana, a different species of cannabis plant. Previous federal law only allowed for research-scale hemp production, which was approved by most other states, but not Connecticut, although UConn has been studying the plant.

Since the recent federal expansion, states like Kentucky, New York and Vermont have been rushing to become the first to draft, submit and adopt sweeping commercial-hemp regulations to get in on an agricultural business analysts estimate will morph into a $20 billion industry by 2020.

Legalizing industrial hemp would open a new market for the state's 6,000-plus farmers, some of which have struggled in recent years.

However, despite several pro-hemp bills awaiting further discussion at the state Capitol, federal red tape and lawmakers' inability to move quickly enough could delay hemp seeds from being planted in Connecticut for years.

Timing is an issue, farm advocates say, because getting in on the industry early could offer a competitive advantage.

"This allows for the diversification of agricultural production for a number of constituencies who have had a really hard time in the last few years," said Jason Bowsza, the state Department of Agriculture's (DoAG) chief of staff. "There really isn't a down side. Hemp is pretty innocent."

Turning a new leaf

Farming in Connecticut is a $4 billion industry, but it's gone through challenges over the years, especially dairy and tobacco producers, which have been squeezed by changing consumer habits and other economic factors.

At least two dairy farms shuttered last year in eastern Connecticut, according to U.S. Congressman Joe Courtney, (D-2nd District), a pro-hemp advocate who is bullish about the potential economic boost growing the plant would provide.

"I give Gov. Lamont credit," Courtney said. "He heard how tough it is out there for farmers on the campaign trail, and this proposal pushes this opportunity forward as quickly as Connecticut could accomplish. This is a real way of stabilizing agriculture in Connecticut."

Hundreds of farmers are expressing interest in cultivating industrial hemp, according to several industry trade groups. Early estimates show cultivation could earn farmers between $40,000 and $150,000 in new annual revenue per acre.

Industrial hemp, a member of the cannabis sativa family, is generally used for fiber and CBD extraction, but it has over 25,000 different uses, according to the Connecticut Farm Bureau, an industry trade group.

The plant's fibers and stalks, for example, are used in paper, feed additive, textilies, body oil and lotions, clothing and plastic.

"I get 10 to 15 calls a week from farmers asking when they can start planting hemp," said Bryan Hurlburt, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau. "There is near unanimous support. And I think we have a broad base of legislative support to get something done this year."

Still wary

Hemp is already present in Connecticut. Four-hundred students and other staff at UConn are cultivating, testing and studying modest amounts of hemp, which, unlike marijuana, has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), so it can't get you "high." The educational-hemp program is permitted for land-grant universities.

In 2014, Congress authorized states to grant farmers limited hemp-growing permits for research, but Connecticut farmers have been left on the sidelines due to a lack of support from the state legislature, and because attempts to allow it here didn't meet federal guidelines.

That's why farmers remain wary that lawmakers, who seem to be warming up to industrial hemp, will again let them down.

DoAG has spent hundreds of hours over the last six months developing legislation and regulations that align with requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"Despite everyone's very best intentions to set this up, the state and federal law [haven't aligned]," Bowsza said. "What the governor has put forward would make sure that state law comports with federal law so we can do this right under the 2018 Farm Bill."

Hemp pitches

Besides Lamont, hemp advocacy this year is being spurred by a bipartisan mix of lawmakers in Hartford, including House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby), Sen. Cathy Osten (D-Sprague), Rep. Timothy Ackert (R-Coventry) and Rep. Kathleen McCarty (R-Waterford).

However, not all are in agreement about which legislative path to take. There are currently four hemp proposals circulating in the state legislature, but some lack funding and other necessary language to run proper hemp-cultivation programs, said DoAG Acting Commissioner Melody Currey, who, alongside the state Department of Consumer Protection, favors Lamont's proposal.

"Recognizing that there is interest in establishing a hemp program in Connecticut this legislative session, we strongly urge the committee to support the governor's bill," Currey said in recent testimony before the Environment Committee. "This language has considered all of the necessary components to establishing a hemp program in Connecticut."

Lamont's bill allocates $136,000 in startup costs to fund new DoAG hires who would support hemp testing, including ensuring the crops meet federal THC-level requirements.

That's important because the line between hemp and marijuana is thin: Hemp contains 0.3 percent or less of THC, and anything over that threshold is considered marijuana.

Additional DoAG staff is the first step in getting the state's hemp program moving, said Hurlburt.

"The [governor's budget] added staff and funded the program, so it has a real chance to get up and running," he said. "It's great recognition that he agrees this can be a reality this year, and that could be part of his legacy."

Some program details

Lamont's plan sets a course for the state to license hemp cultivation in 10-acre increments. Farmers would not be capped on the amount of acreage that could be used for hemp cultivation, and there is no tax associated with its sale. Farmers registering for labels that have hemp as an ingredient would incur a licensing fee.

But even if lawmakers approve Lamont's bill, that alone won't jumpstart hemp farming in Connecticut.

The state must submit an enforcement plan to USDA for review and approval in consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice. It would also be required to adopt regulations on hemp cultivation to implement the statutory language under the governor's bill.

Typically, states begin developing an enforcement plan and regulations after a bill passes. But given the urgency in Connecticut, DoAG has been drafting both simultaneously to streamline the administrative process as quickly as possible.

Don Tuller, president of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said it's crucial for local farmers to get in on the hemp business now while CBD prices are still high. A farmer's return on investment will only worsen the longer Connecticut waits to get a measure passed.

Tuller, who co-owns Tulmeadow Farm in West Simsbury, plans to test hemp growing for CBD oil extraction, but said the crop isn't easy to cultivate. That's especially true because there are no programs in place to teach farmers how to deal with the insect or disease process when harvesting industrial hemp.

"It's kind of the Wild West in terms of if there is a problem," he said. "It's a complicated plant to process."

But Tuller said lawmakers should still commit to the program as soon as possible — preferably before this spring's growing season — and finalize the details later.

Meanwhile, it could take some time before Connecticut sees full-scale hemp production. The USDA isn't expected to finalize its regulatory framework until 2020.

That's why the state is first seeking to establish a pilot program, which is seen as more likely to receive federal approval in the near term.

"We are hoping that will allow for some cultivation this year," said Bowsza.

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