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Mass. Hemp Coalition Forms in Response to State Crackdown on Hemp, CBD

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 July Issue Newsletter

By Marty Dagoberto, NOFA/Mass Policy Director

Advocates with the Mass. Hemp Coalition at the State House on June 24th, 2019

-State agencies appear to prohibit the sale of products containing hemp-derived CBD
-A new Mass. Hemp Coalition has formed to represent hemp farmers and manufacturers
-Stay tuned for future action alerts for how we can #helphempgrow!

On June 12th, 2019, the Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) issued a policy on the sale of hemp derived products which effectively outlawed the sale of food products containing hemp-derived CBD, products containing CBD marketed with therapeutic claims, hemp as a dietary supplement and any animal feed containing hemp products. The policy does not include definitions, so it is still unclear whether CBD-derived tinctures or capsules are prohibited.

The news sent shockwaves through the state’s nascent hemp economy, and comes at the worst possible time for farmers who have just invested tens of thousands of dollars in the new crop which is now growing for its first major season since prohibition was lifted in 2016. 

The rules came out within a week of House lawmakers passing a bill that makes hemp farming eligible for agricultural tax rates and which allows hemp cultivation on agricultural restriction land (a victory on an issue that NOFA/Mass had been actively working on this legislative session). However, the potential market for those crops is severely diminished by this new MDAR policy. 

In response, NOFA/Mass has joined with a coalition of advocates forming the Mass. Hemp Coalition, which held a press conference at the State House on June 24th. Read on for an in-depth explanation of the current situation, and stay tuned for future alerts on how we will take action to address this crisis. 

One hundred and two farmers have been issued licenses to grow hemp under the Department of Agricultural Resources for the 2019 season. All but one of them (Editor’s note: to the best of our knowledge) are growing hemp for “hemp flowers,” with the intent of selling the resinous flowers to meet the meteoric rise in consumer demand for hemp-derived CBD oil and related products. Farmers are not growing hemp for seed hulls or the other “approved hemp-derived products” listed in the recent policy. The techniques and cultivars are completely different between growing hemp for flower and growing it for seed or fiber. 

CBD, or cannabidiol is one of several non-psychoactive components of hemp sought by a rapidly increasing number of consumers seeking relief from anxiety, inflammation, insomnia and a host of other ailments. Hemp is defined as having extremely low levels (<0.3%) of THC, so it doesn’t get someone “high.” Because CBD has been added to a drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat epilepsy, the federal agency has recently stated that it can not be incorporated into foods (sorry Hippocrates, the U.S. Federal Government say that food can’t be medicine), thus providing a pretext for this state-level crackdown. 

Massachusetts lawmakers followed the will of Baystaters when 1.8 million voted in 2016 to legalize adult-use cannabis, in stark contradiction to ongoing federal prohibition. The same ballot initiative which legalized cannabis also legalized hemp in Massachusetts. For some unknown reason, however, when it comes to hemp, the state is apparently banning the sale of the most profitable hemp-derived products and citing FDA as the reason.

Two days after the policy was issued, a group of hemp industry advocates, including the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association (of which NOFA/Mass is a founding member) formed the Massachusetts Hemp Coalition. The coalition worked swiftly to organize a well-attended press conference held on the front steps of the State House on June 24th.

See coverage of the hemp rally from The Boston Globe (June 24th) and MassLive (June 25th).

NOFA/Mass Policy Director, Marty Dagoberto, addresses the crowd at the #helphempgrow rally on June 24th, 2019Three dozen hemp farmers, business owners and advocates (including NOFA/Mass Policy Director Marty Dagoberto, pictured above) spoke in front of a crowd of supporters, legislators and members of the press on June 24th, 2019. They called on MDAR to clarify the policy and to consider the impact it has on our state’s farmers and small businesses. For Massachusetts farmers who have already received licenses to grow hemp, the ban on hemp-derived CBD products is threatening their livelihood.

“Less than two months ago, I applied for my processing and manufacturing license, and enumerated that I’d be making edibles, tinctures, infused foods, and I was given a license,” said Julia Agron, a hemp farmer and Mass. Hemp Coalition organizer. “For us, if we can’t sell our artisanal product at artisanal prices, we can’t farm.”

Now that hemp is legalized nationwide under the 2018 Farm Bill, most Mass. farmers believe that the only way they might compete with the large-scale grower operations elsewhere, is to produce artisanal, craft products — such as high-quality flower for smoking or tea or to produce value-added consumables. (Smoking the hemp flower won’t get someone high, but is being used by people trying to quit smoking cigarettes or to cut down on high-THC cannabis consumption.) 

The market for Massachusetts farmers will be dramatically reduced if they cannot sell their crop for edible products or as whole flowers (also prohibited by the MDAR policy). The new policy also throws into question the market for hemp oil for tinctures and extracts. 

“Why would the administration allow our farmers to invest in a new crop and then remove the local market for that crop mid-season?,” Dagoberto asked the crowd, rhetorically. He continued, “and why, in a state with legalized adult-use of recreational cannabis, would they be restricting its non-psychoactive cousin more tightly?” As a result of this new policy, foods infused with hemp are prohibited, while foods infused with cannabis are still allowed. 

As stated in a policy statement of the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association (June 24, 2019), “The rigorous safety testing protocols in place for marijuana also apply to hemp and hemp consumer products grown or produced in Massachusetts. Fortunately, these existing protocols provide robust consumer protection for hemp products, and therefore additional mandates for hemp are duplicative, unnecessary and overly burdensome.” 

A Path Forward?

Hemp farmers desperately want a regulatory framework for selling CBD products. “We need clear and transparent guidance for MA farmers, processors and retailers,” reads a recent statement from the Mass. Hemp Coalition. Representatives of the Mass. Hemp Coalition will be meeting with the Commissioner of MDAR by the time this article is published. They are asking for the state to “allow for the immediate sale of hemp-derived CBD products including edibles, flower, and other infused products for humans and animals in Massachusetts where products are produced and sold in compliance with manufacturing and labeling standards according to state law.”

Coalition members and some state legislators have indicated that a resolution through the state legislature may be necessary. After state regulators in Maine announced a similar ban, their legislature immediately passed an emergency rule to allow CBD sales

NOFA/Mass will stay actively engaged in this process and supporters will be alerted when there is a solid action to support. For now, if people wish to express their concerns regarding this ban on CBD products and how it adversely impacts over 100 Massachusetts farmers, they should go to the top: Governor Baker's Constituent Services Main Office number is (617) 725-4005.

Update: On Thursday, June 27th, Rep. Mark Cusack filed HD.4339 with the intent of addressing the apparent prohibition of CBD and other hemp products (Boston Globe coverage, here.) We applaud the legislative initiative to try and clarify the confusion around retail sale of hemp derived products in Massachusetts. However, we also want to ensure that any hemp bill is comprehensive enough to protect everyone involved in this fledgling industry including the farmer who is growing the actual crop. We are working with the Mass. Hemp Coalition and meeting with the Department of Agriculture to clarify the original policy statement and to determine the most appropriate next steps for a solution. We will update the original blog post of this article and notify our supporters via email when there is a coalition-wide call to action on a solution.

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