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Hemp farming hits snag with DEA as cannabis plant

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 5:39 p.m.

WAITSFIELD, Vt. — Some Vermont farmers want to plant hemp now that the state has a law setting up rules to grow the plant, a cousin of marijuana, that's more suitable for making sandals than getting high.

But federal law forbids growing hemp without a permit, so farmers could be risking the farm if they decide to grow the plant that the Drug Enforcement Administration basically considers marijuana.

Hemp and marijuana share the same species — cannabis sativa — but hemp has a negligible content of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Under federal law, all cannabis plants fall under the marijuana label, regardless of THC content.

To grow marijuana for industrial purposes or research, a grower must register with the DEA and meet specific security requirements, such as installing costly fencing for a field of hemp.

A national nonprofit group is pushing to change the law and move regulation of hemp farming from the DEA to the state. In the meantime, the group, Vote Hemp, does not recommend growing hemp while state and federal laws conflict.

“It's literally betting the farm,” said Tom Murphy, national outreach coordinator for the group.

Farmers who grow hemp, or even conspire to grow it and import the seeds, face jail time and the forfeiture of their land, he said. It's unclear how seriously the DEA will enforce the law.

Murphy said he's heard that people have planted hemp on leased land in Colorado.

“Now if somebody chooses to do it as civil disobedience, knowing full well what's going to happen, then that's on them,” he said.

So far, 19 states have passed hemp legislation, including nine that allow its production. Eight states have passed bills calling for the study of hemp, while three states passed bills setting up commissions or authorizing the study of it, according to Vote Hemp.

The states hope to nudge the federal government to change its law.

John Vitko would like to grow hemp on his Vermont farm to use as feed for his chickens now that Vermont has passed a law setting up rules to grow it. He doesn't know where to find any seed and knows he would be breaking federal law if he finds some and grows a small amount of the plant.

With feed costs rising, he said, hemp provides an economical way to feed and provide bedding for his 100 birds, whose eggs are used in the custard-based ice cream he sells to restaurants and in a dessert shop in Waitsfield.

“It's one of the few things that are manageable for a small farmer to handle,” he said of hemp, which does not require large equipment to plant and harvest like corn does.

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