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Marijuana and Hemp: Police Can’t Tell the Difference

Marijuana and hemp look and smell the same, but transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal crime

The market for CBD products is booming, and to make all those oils and creams you see in the store, manufacturers need hemp.

Hemp is a key ingredient in cannabidiol products, which are sold to treat everything from anxiety to muscle pain. The rapid rise of the CBD industry means hemp is in demand. But before it reaches consumers, hemp has to move from farm to lab, and some local farmers worry transporting it could put them in legal jeopardy.

Marijuana and hemp look and smell the same, but transporting marijuana across state lines is a federal crime — even in places like Massachusetts where possessing the drug is legal. Right now, police don’t have a field test that can distinguish between the two plants. Some police officers say it’s only a matter of time before someone gets busted for a crime they may not have committed.

Chris Santee, the CEO of Colomont in northwest Vermont, grows hundreds of pounds of industrial hemp each year. The company transforms some of the crop into oils and lip balms, and also sells hemp wholesale.

"We are exploring moving tractor trailer loads full down to a spice company in New Jersey to make lots of nice BBQ sauces, poultry spices, seasonings,” he said.

But that trip — even a short run from greenhouse to warehouse — is a risk, and Santee takes precautions to keep his shipments safe. He calls state police to let them know his hemp is on the road. Drivers also carry a certificate of authenticity to prove what they’re carrying is hemp, not illegal pot.

“Weigh stations are always a concern when you pull in there and people inspect the contents of the truck," Santee said.

Matt Gutwill, of the New England Narcotic Officers Association, said marijuana and hemp appear similar, and the only way to tell the difference for sure is to run a test for THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Under federal standards, hemp can't contain more than 0.3 percent THC, which is responsible for making cannabis users feel high.

Both hemp and marijuana have some level of THC, and as a result, drug-sniffing dogs will detect it in both cannabis and hemp. The issue is so concerning that the DEA has put out a call urging companies to develop an accurate, affordable test.

Without one, growers have been detained, and some truckers and security guards have been arrested.

"That person could be sitting, waiting on bail for four, five months," Gutwill said. "when in reality it’s just hemp."

And millions of dollars’ worth of product, seized as evidence, is drying out in police warehouses while cases play out.

In Walpole, about one quarter of all motor vehicle stops involve drugs. Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael said he doubts his officers could distinguish between hemp and marijuana out in the field.

And as the bulk of Massachusetts hemp farmers yield their first crop this year, Carmichael says officers will be trying to distinguish legal from illegal more often.

"If they have probable cause to believe that this is criminal activity or a criminal amount, they have to make that call," Carmichael said.

Confusion between the two plants could also provide an opening for drug dealers to transport cannabis in the guise of hemp, Gutwill said.

"This is like a train for the black market," he said. "The black market will be 100 percent disguising hemp — marijuana as hemp. All day, all night they will be doing that.”

A handful of companies are working to develop a test. How long it could take to get to market and in the hands of police officers is unclear.

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