Advocates for hemp production in New York state declared that the state's farmers are uniquely positioned to benefit from a possible change to federal marijuana policy that would free “industrial hemp” from its association with illegal pot.

Advocates for hemp production in New York state declared that the state's farmers are uniquely positioned to benefit from a possible change to federal marijuana policy that would free “industrial hemp” from its association with illegal pot.

“The hemp plant is a vegetable. You’re looking at a vegetable here,” declared Tompkins County hemp farmer Michael Casper.

Casper started his plantation of some 6000 hemp plants in February, his first foray into growing cannabis sativa, the plant that brings us hemp and marijuana.

His vision was to grow the plants for fabrics, animal feed, medicinal uses such as the increasingly popular cannabidiol (CBD) oil, or for food products, even salads.

“Actually it is rather smooth, sweet,” he announced, chewing on a handful of cannabis leaves.

But while his crop was “industrial hemp,” with too little of the chemical THC to produce a “high,” he found the association with marijuana hard to shake.

"The plant is so tainted with the dogma of being an illegal plant, marijuana, a gateway drug," he exclaimed. “When some people first heard that I was going to grow hemp here they were in shock.”

Some of that stigma could be lifted under the provisions of the Hemp Farming Act, a provision inserted into the U.S. Senate version of the 2018 Farm Bill.

The act allows for state control and regulation of hemp commerce, allows hemp farmers to apply for agricultural grants and, most importantly, declares that the term “marihuana” [sic] does not apply to “industrial or research hemp,” meaning cannabis with levels of the psychoactive THC below set limits.

“I’ve talked to our farmers in Wayne County,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a sponsor of the Hemp Farming Act in the U.S. Senate.

“This has nothing to do with marijuana. Most of the industrial hemp is imported, from Canada and other places. They would love to grow it.”

The taint of association with marijuana was all to familiar to hemp entrepreneurs like David Brickman whose store Hemp It Up on Park Avenue in Rochester sold products like paper made from hemp pulp, hemp fabric woven into products like hats, bags, or t-shirts, as well as CBD products like oils, lotions and vape solution.

“There is nothing in this entire store that can get you high,” he said. “You can eat as many hats as you can tolerate and you won’t even get a buzz.”

Still, the connection with a notorious drug frequently sabotaged his business, as when he discovered some banks and credit card processors unwilling to risk association with marijuana.

The world of social media proved squeamish as well.

“There have been cases of advertisers whose Facebook accounts get shut down when they try to promote something as innocuous as a hemp hat,” said Brickman.

The 2018 Farm Bill which included “Hemp Farming Act” passed with bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate but the hemp provision was not included in the version of the Farm Bill that passed in the U.S. House.

The House Farm Bill was exclusively supported by Republicans and got no support from Democrats.

While declaring his support for hemp farming, New York Representative Chris Collins said getting the bill passed required a delicate balancing act in Congress. "We only passed it by two votes so I am sure our leadership working with the folks on the Ag Committee made sure we didn't have anything that had any controversy.”

The Hemp Act faced an uncertain future as the Farm Bill headed into a joint House/Senate conference committee, primarily because a much more controversial issue divided the differing farm bills, food stamps.

The House bill included new work requirements for recipients of SNAP benefits, something that promised intense debate.

In a fraught Congress, the hemp provision, Collins said, needed careful shepherding and education about its true purpose. "We just need to…” he exclaimed. “It's like education in any and all cases. This is not hemp that you're going to smoke."

If the Hemp Act were passed, advocates predicted an explosion of growth in hemp farming and hemp business in New York State, a region of particular interest for hemp entrepreneurs who turned out in enthusiastic numbers at a June hemp summit in Binghamton.

“They’re all looking at New York and they’re hungry,” declared Kelan Castetter of the Castetter Sustainability Group whose family makes and sells hemp infused wine in the Southern Tier. “They want to come and they want to invest their money.”

Castetter said his discussions with the hemp industry found excitement for New York even in pot-friendly states like Colorado because of New York’s abundant farmland, its proximity to New York City, a gateway to world markets, and the state’s friendly treatment of hemp.

In the fall, Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved $10 million in state funding for hemp funding and research.

Castetter predicted a flood of new activity in hemp, if the federal hemp act passes and clears up the murky legal environment surrounding the plants.

“There’s a lot of gray area in the regulatory environment now,” he said. “But once you completely go and say ‘all industrial hemp products are legal and they are not marijuana. They are not attached to the controlled substances act,’ you are going to see massive investment. You’re going to see massive interest in hemp for products they’re going to carry nationwide distribution and global distribution.”

A conference committee to reconcile the differing farm bills from the U.S. House, without the Hemp Act, and the Senate, with the Hemp Act, began assembling after Congress returned from the 4th of July recess.

Congress has until the end of September to authorize a new Farm Bill, or reauthorize the Farm Bill from previous years which has not included the Hemp Act.