Our Opinion: Hemp can again become a cash crop

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The legalization of marijuana in Massachusetts in 2016 drew all of the headlines but hemp was also legalized in the process. Hemp once played a part in our state's economy and it may soon have the potential to do again.

Last week on Beacon Hill, the House approved a bill brought by state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, that authorizes farmers to grow hemp on land designated for horticultural use or preserved for agricultural purposes. A companion bill has been filed in the Senate by state Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat.

Rep. Pignatelli observed at a hearing last week that Model-T cars contained hemp products and used a hemp bio-fuel at a time when hemp was a major cash crop. That ended in 1937 when hemp became a federally controlled substance, but those controls were lifted in late 2018 as part of a broader farm bill. Hemp, like marijuana, comes from the cannabis plant and is used largely to make fibers and fabrics.

Farmers across the state have been advocating for the legalization of growing hemp, with Sheffield's Equinox Farm, owned by Ted Dobson and managed by Hannah Karcheski, at the forefront. The state bill would remove an Agricultural Preservation Restriction and restrictions under Chapter 61A of Massachusetts laws that would have blocked the growing of hemp. This is not a controversial measure given that the bill passed the House unanimously. Oversight and regulation of legally grown hemp would be established. Passage will enable farmers in the Berkshires and across the state to diversify their crops and take advantage of a profitable industry.

Rep. Pignatelli, who chairs the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, notes that the United States is currently importing hemp from other countries (Canada and Jamaica are prime importers) for the manufacturer of clothing, food, paper and textiles. Mr. Pignatelli said that passage of this legislation "will generate job creation and provide our farmers with a strong foothold in a new, fast-growing industry."

CBD oil, which many believe has therapeutic benefits, can be extracted from hemp, but the state Department of Agriculture has banned its sale. Rep. Pignatelli said in a phone conversation that more needs to be known about the effects of CBD oil, but its extraction from hemp is a potential major source of revenue for farmers.

We urge the Senate to pass its version of the bill and send the legislation to Gov. Baker for his signature. It's past time for hemp to again be a part of the Massachusetts economic picture, to the benefit of farmers in the Berkshires and elsewhere who play a big role in that economy and could use a boost.

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