Hemp bill becomes law without Douglas’ signature

05/30/08 7:34AM By Ross Sneyd
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(Host) Vermont farmers might have a new chance to diversify their operations.

Governor Jim Douglas allowed a bill that permits farms to plant crops of industrial hemp to become law without his signature.

But, as VPR's Ross Sneyd reports, advocates of a hemp industry are still going to have to wait.

(Sneyd) Federal law prohibits cultivation of hemp because it comes from the same plant that marijuana does.

But lawmakers believe there eventually will be a change in federal policy. Advocates say hemp can be used to make a variety of products, from cosmetics to food to clothing.

So legislators overwhelmingly adopted a law that directs the Agriculture Agency to be ready when there is a change.

Representative Will Stevens, an independent from Shoreham, says hemp could be an important crop for many farmers.

(Stevens) "I don't know that anybody in the Ag Committee believes that raising hemp will save the family farm. But I think it's one more tool in the crop mix and in the array of things that particularly small-scale producers can grow. It will provide an opportunity for some niche marketing and niche production.''

(Sneyd) Law-enforcement officials opposed the bill. They worry about the link between hemp and marijuana. The governor cited those concerns as part of the reason he didn't sign the bill. But he says those didn't warrant a veto.

Now, the Agriculture Agency will be required to draw up rules for hemp cultivation so farmers could be licensed as soon as federal law changes.

North Dakota is the only other state that has done the same thing.

Hemp already is grown legally across Canada and in many other parts of the world. It was outlawed in the United States in 1937, although it was grown for industrial uses during World War II.

Tom Murphy of the group Vote Hemp says it's time to end the prohibition again, especially with oil prices so high. He says hemp could be used for fuel that's made from plants - what's known as cellulosic ethanol.

(Murphy) "It would be an excellent choice for cellulosic ethanol. There are cellulosic ethanol tax credits in the new farm bill. And industrial hemp, if it were able to be grown in the United States, would be a good fit along with other crops such as switch grass and fast-growing wood that is being used and considered for cellulosic ethanol.''

(Sneyd) The Legislature was told that hemp could also be used as a fuel source in power plants, replacing or supplementing wood chips.

But no one expects fields of hemp to show up on Vermont's landscape anytime soon.

There's a bill pending in Congress that would permit states like Vermont and North Dakota to cultivate hemp. But it hasn't gotten a hearing in committee and advocates say it's not likely to during a presidential election year.

For VPR News, I'm Ross Sneyd.

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