Rule change paves way for smokable hemp

Farmers say change could be key to profitability

FOR THE LAST four years, Linda Noel has planted and cultivated hemp, but the Franklin farmer has never been able to sell it because of strict regulations governing how her crop can be used. 

Now that’s about to change, as the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources published a new rule Monday night allowing the state’s hemp farmers to package the flower of the plant into smoking products and sell it to legal marijuana dispensaries, which can sell it to their customers. It opens a vast new market for hemp farmers by legalizing the sale of the most profitable product to come out of the hemp plant – smokable flower. 

Hemp is a kind of cannabis plant, but unlike marijuana, it cannot get a person high. Hemp tends to be rich in CBD, which is thought to have therapeutic qualities, but does not have a significant amount of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. 

Smoking hemp flower in a joint may appeal to people who want a calming effect without the high that comes with smoking marijuana. Certain extracts from hemp, CBD, or other cannabinoids are sometimes used by people struggling with sleep issues or anxiety. Some people also smoke hemp as a way to stop smoking tobacco. 

However it is used, farmers like Noel see smokable hemp flower as the way back to profitability. If she can sell her hemp this year for flower – along with the crops still sitting in her freezer – Noel said she should be able to recoup the money she invested in her crop the last four years. “That will give me the money to start anew,” Noel said. 

Julia Agron, president of the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association, said the price farmers will be able to obtain for the flower from marijuana dispensaries is still unknown since it is such a new market. But Noel is hopeful, based on national figures, that farmers will be able to get $800 to $1,000 a pound for flower compared to $10 to $40 a pound for the rest of the plant, from which oils and fibers can be extracted.  (The numbers are not necessarily comparable since only part of the plant can be sold as flower.) 

“That’s a big difference when you’re talking about a plant that requires a lot of labor to get it to harvest,” Noel said. 

Hemp has been in a regulatory limbo for years. Initially outlawed by laws against cannabis, Massachusetts legalized hemp alongside marijuana in 2016. Congress legalized hemp in a 2018 farm bill. But restrictions remain on how it can be used. For example, federal law prohibits the sale of CBD products in food.  

Until recently, Massachusetts hemp farmers were able to legally sell hemp for use in fabrics, fibers, lotions, and oils. But they were forbidden from selling smokable flower. The Department of Agricultural Resources said it banned farmers from selling the flower because hemp flower could easily be confused with marijuana and because hemp testing measures the average THC content across a large crop, so individual hemp plants could exceed the legal limit for how much THC is allowed in a plant.  

Flower and other CBD products made out of state can be bought today in gas stations and smoke shops, primarily because the retail sale of these products is unregulated, making it a legal gray area. 

In December 2020, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the fiscal 2021 budget, which included an amendment allowing hemp farmers to sell products to marijuana dispensaries. Farmers had pushed hard for the amendment in the hopes that it would expand the market for their existing products, but also open a new market by letting them sell flower. State regulators quickly opened the dispensary market to hemp body products and clothing, but regulatory and legal concerns led to delays in approving the sale of flower. 

Finally, on Monday, the Department of Agricultural Resources released regulations that will allow hemp farmers to sell their flower, along with other CBD oils and extracts, to marijuana companies licensed by the Cannabis Control Commission. 

Agron described the decision as huge. “Even if it’s just in dispensaries…hemp farmers can directly sell their products at a profit,” she said. 

Agron said consumers will also benefit since they will now have more tested and regulated products.  

Jacob Zieminski, a Cheshire farmer who owns Cavu Hemp and advises other hemp farmers, said the new market could literally save farms by opening up a new lucrative crop to a struggling agricultural industry. Zieminski said he has been working with traditional farmers – now working in financially challenging areas like dairy farming or maple syrup production – who may now set aside a portion of land to grow hemp with a chance for significant revenue should their crop succeed.  

Zieminski said a lot of the products being sold today are mediocre. Having local farmers get in the game provides an opportunity to develop craft hemp crops. He compared the ability to sell hemp flower to a dairy farm, where the money is not in selling milk, but selling cream for high-end cheese. “Flower is the cream of the crop for us,” Zieminski said. 

The Cannabis Control Commission is now expected to release its own regulations for dispensaries seeking to purchase hemp flower. Commission spokesperson Tara Smith said the commission continues to partner with the Department of Agricultural Resources to support licensed hemp farmers. “The commission is reviewing this new guidance and will collaborate with MDAR to ensure regulated hemp products are sold safely and effectively through marijuana establishments and medical marijuana treatment centers in accordance with state law,” Smith said. 

This is not the end of the road for hemp advocates. They are still pushing for a bill pending in the Legislature that would let farmers sell hemp products at farmers markets, rather than just at marijuana dispensaries.  

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

John Nathan, owner of Bay State Hemp, which processes hemp to extract rare cannabinoids for therapeutic uses, said he would love to see hemp products sold in all stores. “I personally believe, as a federally legal product, it should be allowed to be sold anywhere,” he said. 

Correction: This story was corrected to note that farmers, not dispensaries, are allowed to package the flower.