Mass. hemp farmers view amendment as lifesaver
Fattman says passage needed to save industry
MASSACHUSETTS HEMP FARMERS are lobbying for a seemingly simple change in state policy that would vastly expand the market for their product. But the change – which would let hemp products be sold in marijuana dispensaries – carries complex policy implications that highlight the unusual regulatory system governing different aspects of the cannabis plant.
On Wednesday, the Senate adopted a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, to let marijuana dispensaries buy Massachusetts-grown hemp. Fattman called the amendment “a crucial first step” towards revolutionizing the Massachusetts hemp industry.
“Unless this necessary first step is taken, Massachusetts hemp farmers and processors will continue to be unfairly locked out of the market here and face financial and personal ruin,” Fattman said.
Hemp, like marijuana, is a kind of cannabis plant. Unlike marijuana, hemp cannot get a person high. By law, hemp must have less than 0.3 percent THC, which is the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Hemp is typically used to make fabric, fibers, lotions, oils, and, more lucratively, for the extraction of CBD oil, which has some therapeutic qualities.
There are now 79 Massachusetts farmers with state licenses to grow hemp and 19 hemp processers.
However, there are significant restrictions on how hemp can be used. Federal law prohibits selling CBD products as food or dietary supplements. The state Department of Agricultural Resources prohibits the sale of raw hemp flower, which could be smoked. The state agency says it banned the sale of flower because it could easily be confused with marijuana and because hemp testing measures average THC content across a large crop, so individual plants could exceed the legal limit.
The issue being addressed by the budget amendment is a provision in state marijuana law that restricts marijuana dispensaries to buying products that contain cannabinoids – which are the chemicals in the cannabis plant – only from other companies licensed by the Cannabis Control Commission, such as marijuana growers or manufacturers.
Fattman’s amendment, which now heads to a budget conference committee, would amend that law to let marijuana establishments also buy hemp products made by farmers or processors licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
“We’ve had several dispensaries reach out to us to carry our products, and we had to tell them they weren’t allowed to,” said Laura Beohner, president and cofounder of The Healing Rose in Newburyport, which sells hemp body care products and oils.
Advocates say Fattman’s amendment, if it becomes law, would help give hemp farmers a new market, give dispensaries new products, and help consumers find a more diverse array of products. But the implications of the amendment go beyond simply opening a new market for currently available hemp-derived body lotions. It could potentially allow Massachusetts consumers to buy smokable hemp flower or CBD-infused foods, both of which are now prohibited.
Give the commission’s interpretation of the law, Torrisi said, he supports the budget amendment. “We obviously believe it would be beneficial for our members to be able to buy hemp from locally sourced farmers. We also believe it would be beneficial for medical patients to have access to less expensive CBD,” Torrisi said.
A spokesperson for the Cannabis Control Commission said the commission does not comment on pending legislation.
The most obvious impact of the change would be giving marijuana stores a cheaper supply of CBD – potentially making CBD-heavy products more accessible. Today, because growers are limited by state caps on how much marijuana they can grow, they tend to focus on plants with high THC, since that is the most lucrative crop. (Another option for obtaining CBD is buying an expensive powder, CBD isolate, which is more refined and lacks other qualities that the full plant would have.) So products that contain mostly CBD are not widely available and can be expensive.
John Nathan, who started Bay State Hemp, a hemp processing company in Plymouth, entered the industry because of his experience as a medical marijuana patient. In 2016, Nathan got a medical marijuana card to help him deal with insomnia and crippling anxiety. He said THC made him paranoid, and the only thing that helped him was a non-psychoactive cannabinoid called CBN. But CBN was only available at one medical dispensary in Quincy, which then stopped making it.
The reason, Nathan said, is when a plant with THC is used to extract CBN, the producer throws away the cash crop. Bay State Hemp extracts less well-known cannabinoids from hemp and produces an oil or powder. “If this bill passes, I can supply this to processors in the marijuana industry and they could create products with it without having to destroy their valuable THC,” Nathan said.
Nathan can now sell products to smoke shops or convenience stores anywhere in the US, but not to medical marijuana dispensaries. “That’s not where a patient should have to go,” Nathan said.
Julia Agron, director of the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association, said Massachusetts-made hemp must undergo the same testing requirements as medical marijuana. If dispensaries could sell hemp, she said, Massachusetts consumers would gain access to tested, regulated CBD products. Today, if people buy CBD products made in other states from a gas station, smoke shop, or online, they are largely unregulated. (Several advocates said enforcement of laws prohibiting Massachusetts retailers from selling products like smokable hemp flower is “selective,” at best.)
Agron argues that the amendment is merely fixing an oversight in state law, created because Massachusetts legalized hemp before the federal government did. Several states that legalized marijuana after 2018 let marijuana stores buy hemp products.
“We legalized ahead of the game and now our laws have a gap in them that we’re trying to close,” Agron said.
Practically, however, changing the law could have a much larger impact in expanding the types of hemp products sold in Massachusetts.
While Massachusetts regulations prohibit a hemp cultivator from selling flower to a consumer, a marijuana dispensary is allowed to sell cannabis flower.
Additionally, while federal law, which state public health regulators adopted, prohibits the sale of food or drink infused with hemp derivatives, a marijuana company is allowed to produce marijuana-infused edibles under state law. So potentially, if the amendment became law, a marijuana company could make and sell a soda with hemp-derived CBD the same way it can now make a chocolate bar with marijuana-derived THC. Both items would be legal under state law and illegal under federal law.
“It’s the same gray area as marijuana,” said Peter Bernard, director of the Massachusetts Grower Advocacy Council, which represents marijuana growers.
That could potentially open the market to people like hemp farmer Linda Noel, of Terrapin Farm in Franklin. Noel planted her crop intending to make infused tea and edibles, only to have the state issue guidelines that wiped out those opportunities. She froze her 2019 crop and is not sure what she will do with it. While she is now making bath salts, they earn little profit. “If this passes, then there’s a whole new market,” Noel said. “It opens up the market to us and it also gives (dispensaries) a cheaper source for their products, so it’s a win-win situation.”
The financial implications are huge for farmers. Bernard said hemp flower now sells for $350 to $500 a pound. If it could be sold for use in edibles or vapes, he estimated its value would increase to between $400 and $600 a pound.“The public wants edibles and vapes. That’s where the money is,” Bernard said.
Agron said like many businesses, farmers have been hit by COVID-19. “Farmers and small businesses are going out of business around us, and this would be lifeline to those farmers,” Agron said. “They would have a whole other revenue stream that’s a high value on our crop.”