Lawmakers and advocates are pushing bills this session that would ease restrictions on hemp and marijuana products, pitching it as a way to keep Massachusetts competitive with neighboring states and help local growers.
A Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton bill (S 40) and a similar bill from Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree (H 90) would allow Massachusetts-grown hemp to be made into CBD products for consumption and would set up a licensing system for hemp growers.
Comerford's bill would also allow farmers to grow hemp products on land that is preserved for agriculture, and allow land with hemp crops to be considered farm land for tax purposes.
"In my office, and I'm sure in your offices," Comerford said to other lawmakers at the Agriculture Committee's Monday hearing on the bill, "we've received really bitter testimony from hemp farmers telling us, 'There is no sustainable market for Massachusetts-grown hemp, so why should I plant it and count on it?' One farmer went so far as to say that growing hemp was like [growing] artisan tomatoes that she was being forced to sell for ketchup, because we haven't found the way to allow for the fullness of use of hemp."
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Hemp, an agricultural product made from the same cannabis plant as marijuana, is not a psychoactive compound. As of 2018, it was removed from the list of federally controlled substances and has been considered an agricultural commodity rather than a drug. It has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, which is the primary compound in marijuana that leads to psychoactive effects.
Hemp farmers can grow and cultivate the plant for uses that range from making rope, textiles, shoes and paper to hand lotion and soaps. Some states, like Colorado, allow hemp cannabidiol (CBD) to be added to food or supplements, with advocates claiming consuming CBD can be used to help manage anxiety, help people fall and stay asleep, and relieve nausea, as well as other health benefits.
Under current Massachusetts law, food products containing CBD cannot be wholesaled in the state, and non-food products containing CBD such as lotions and soaps cannot make therapeutic or medicinal claims on the label, unless it has already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"Cannabidiol ('CBD') derived from hemp is still undergoing evaluations for use as a food additive or supplement and a determination has not yet been made relative to its use in products intended for consumption," the Department of Agricultural Resources' website says.
Though Massachusetts farmers cannot produce CBD dietary supplements, vitamins, food and drinks, Bay Staters can still purchase these products at gas stations and grocery stores across the state. Products that are produced lawfully in other states are legally allowed to be sold in Massachusetts.
"All these products are coming from out of state... particularly Vermont and Maine and then nationally, we're looking at states like Oregon and Colorado. Massachusetts hemp farmers are at a severe disadvantage to regional hemp farmers," said Matthew Wendorf, a hemp farmer at Windy Village Cooperative in Sherborn. "The Massachusetts hemp industry may not survive another harvest with the status quo."
Similar to Comerford's bill, a bill from Reps. Smitty Pignatelli and Natalie Blais (H 93) would expand agricultural preservation restrictions for hemp cultivation by allowing hemp farming on restricted horticultural land.
If hemp is legally considered "agriculture," some farmers also believe cannabis being grown for use as a drug should be as well.
"Hemp has already been deemed agriculture at the federal level. It is inequitable policy for hemp to be considered an agricultural crop and not higher THC cannabis, since they are the same plant," said Eric Schwartz, co-founder of Farm Bug Co-Op. "The high regulatory barriers that are often put in place at the local level do not help farmers and do not help small business entrepreneurs."
A Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and Sen. Jacob Oliveira bill (H 94) would include the growing and cultivation of both hemp and marijuana in the definition of agriculture. Because much of the farmland in Massachusetts is legally restricted for agricultural-only use, supporters said the measure would open up significantly more land for possible cannabis cultivation.
Currently, Schwartz said, farmland use regulations and municipalities zoning the cultivation of cannabis for commercial and industrial districts has forced farmers to grow the plant indoors.
"This is not good for our environment. It is estimated that indoor cannabis cultivation can consume up to 2,000 watts of electricity per square meter -- which is 40 times the energy consumption of leafy greens grown indoors," Schwartz said.
He also argued that Massachusetts has a head start on other states. Massachusetts growers will be in competition with farmers across the country if cannabis becomes federally legal and able to be transported across state lines in the future.
"There are climates across the country that are much more conducive to growing cannabis. As such, the commonwealth should be looking to the future and creating policy that ensures the longevity of our cannabis producers in the state of Massachusetts," he said.
In response to his testimony, committee co-chair Sen. Anne Gobi said he brought up "some very good points.
"Looking into the future is obviously something that we want to do, to try to figure out where things will lead us," Gobi said.