MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Members of the state House Agriculture Committee appeared Wednesday to support allowing Vermont’s farmers to grow hemp -- legislation that could put any farmers who plant it on a collision course with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The committee heard testimony on a measure that already passed the Senate in March that would give farmers the option of growing the same plant that produces marijuana.
Although plants grown for hemp are raised differently and contain very low levels of pot’s active ingredient, it remains illegal under federal law.
But supporters of the bill say there’s little risk hemp plants would be diverted for the drug trade.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham and chairwoman of the committee, said she supports the legalization of hemp.
"I think all we’re up against is that the DEA feels this is a dangerous crop, which we’ve discovered as a committee it just is not," she said.
Hemp is widely praised for its multiple uses as a heating fuel, provider of fabric for cloth and rope, construction material, paint and other purposes. It can grow well in Vermont’s climate with its short growing season and long, cold winters, said Ben Falk of Whole Systems Design, a farm specializing in test crops and public education about agriculture in Moretown.
With the current federal ban on hemp, "we’re tossing that agricultural option out the window. The diversification possibility that hemp offers to the state’s agricultural economy and land base are enormous," he told the committee.
Vermont passed a law in 2008 that called on the state Agency of Agriculture to begin issuing hemp growing permits to farmers seeking them as soon as the federal government lifted its prohibition on the crop. The new legislation would have Vermont wait no longer: Farmers could begin growing the crop under state law. But the bill makes clear that they still could face federal prosecution.
"(F)ederal prosecution for growing hemp in violation of federal law 20 may include criminal penalties, forfeiture of property, and loss of access to federal agricultural benefits, including agricultural loans, conservation programs, and insurance programs," it says.
Partridge said a few Vermont farmers may try to defy the federal law, setting up a possible court battle, but she said they should know the risks.
Lawmakers said hemp comes from the stalks of the cannabis plant and hemp plants are raised for long, tall stalk.
Plants grown for marijuana, which comes from cannabis flowers, leaves and resin, are grown to be shorter and bushier.
The DEA historically has made no distinction between the two.
A statement emailed Wednesday by agency spokesman Lawrence Payne said federal law uses the term marijuana to refer to all cannabis plants.
Anyone seeking to grow any type of cannabis must register with the agency, he said. "DEA evaluates these applications for registration in compliance with the statutory factors mandated by Congress and applicable regulations."