House endorses legislation clearing the way to grow industrial hemp

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(Host) The House has overwhelmingly endorsed legislation that could clear the way for farmers to grow industrial hemp.

Opponents criticized the debate as a waste of time, since the federal government doesn’t allow cultivation of the plant.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) George Washington grew it. North Dakota legalized it. Now the Vermont Legislature wants farmers here to be able to plant it.

Industrial hemp comes from the same species as the plant that produces marijuana. But it does not have the active ingredient that makes users high.

Supporters say it does provide an attractive alternative for farmers wanting to diversify. Hemp fiber can be used for clothing; its seeds can be used for oil or food. The plant material can also be converted to ethanol fuel.

Amy Shollenberger is director of the Rural Vermont farm advocacy organization.

(Shollenberger) Farmers in Canada are reporting $800 an acre return on their product. It can be grown organically very easily. Farmers here have testified they could make a profit if they grew the crop. I think we won’t really know the impact until we’re allowed to do it. But the opportunity is out there and we should give our farmers a chance to have it.

(Dillon) The bill had strong support in the Agriculture Committee – and among other lawmakers. The measure advanced on a 127 to 9 vote.

But Highgate Representative Norman McAllister said the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has refused to approve it, so the debate here was pointless. McAllister urged his colleagues to help farmers grow crops for a new biofuels plant in Swanton, and not waste time on the hemp bill.

(McAllister) I think we should be spending much more time promoting things that we can do, rather than speculating on things that we probably are not going to be able to do. It goes against my grain. I’m not going to support this bill. I’m sorry, I try to support everything in agriculture. But this one just does not meet the straight face test.

(Dillon) North Dakota legalized hemp cultivation a number of years ago, but farmers there are still waiting for DEA permission to cultivate the plant.

But Brattleboro Representative Ginny Milkey said it was important for Vermont to also get a head start and prepare for the day when the federal government finally grants approval.

She used the example of Vermont’s captive insurance industry. Vermont became one of the first states to make it easier for captive insurance companies to locate here. And now she said the industry pays the state more than $20 million a year to locate here.

(Milkey) And I see this simply as being prepared for something that may come, we don’t know when. But in the future. And when it does, Vermont will be in a position to jump on it. So I think this is a great idea.

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas also suggested that lawmakers were wasting their time on the hemp bill. He urged them to work on pocketbook issues, like property tax reform.

The hemp bill is expected to come up for final approval on Friday.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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