By Chris O'Brien
On May 29, Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas allowed the Hemp for Vermont Bill to become law after it passed by 126-9 in the state's House and 25-1 in the Senate. The bill makes it legal for Vermont farmers to grow non-drug industrial hemp, although they still have to contend with federal regulations.
"Even though the bill is law, growing hemp without federal permission would be an act of civil disobedience enforceable by the [Drug Enforcement Administration]," said Adam Eidinger, communications director at Vote Hemp, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 2000 by members of the hemp industry to remove barriers to industrial hemp farming in the U.S.
Vermont is the second state to legalize farming industrial hemp. In February 2007, North Dakota passed a similar law, and in June 2007, two North Dakota farmers, including Rep. David Monson, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota in an effort to end the DEA's obstruction of commercial hemp farming in the U.S. According to Vote Hemp, if successful, the legal action would result in licensed hemp farmers receiving assurances that no federal agency could hold them criminally liable under the Controlled Substances Act.
"Our greater goal is to give farmers in the U.S. the right to grow industrial hemp the way that farmers in Canada and every other industrialized nations can," Eidinger said, "And we have been accomplishing that in small steps."
In 2001, the DEA tried to ban all hemp foods and was sued by the Hemp Industries Association, representing more than 300 hemp-product companies. In 2004, HIA won the suit, making it legal to import, produce and sell hemp products, although growing the raw material is still illegal.
According to Eidinger, who tracks SPINS (a natural products industry market research firm) and private data, the U.S. hemp food-products market, including hemp milk, seeds, oil, bars and flour, is about a $40 million-a-year industry and rapidly growing. However, because of federal regulations that he calls over-interpretations of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, it's illegal to farm hemp in the U.S., and raw materials for hemp foods and other products must be imported from Canada or elsewhere.
"We believe Congress did not want to ban hemp in the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act," said Eidinger. "We are not trying to change the law, just get the government to respect the law."
Farmers and Vote Hemp also contend that non-drug hemp makes an excellent rotation crop for corn and wheat because it controls weeds and uses minimal amounts of nitrogen.
The Vermont victory is particularly exciting to hemp advocacy groups as Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees criminal law enforcement as well as revision and codification of the Statutes of the United States.
"It is within his [Leahy's] jurisdiction to regulate the Department of Justice, including the DEA, and it would be easy for him to create an amendment or a standalone piece of legislation that would allow states to independently regulate industrial hemp farming," Eidinger said.