WASHINGTON — When Scott Sparks decided to open a hemp-focused store in Brattleboro, he ran into lots of logistical challenges: Finding a landlord, opening a bank account, getting insurance, setting up payroll.
“I had lots and lots of doors slammed in my face,” he said in a recent phone interview.
While hemp has become an increasingly common crop in Vermont and across the country, it remains illegal under federal law. Though pilot programs have been permitted since 2014, the prohibition stands and those involved in the budding sector say the strict federal laws have hindered its growth.
That could change.
A new proposal from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would lift federal restrictions on hemp, and pass regulatory responsibilities to the states.
Many in Vermont see great potential for hemp as a vehicle for economic development, offering new opportunities for the state’s farmers and entrepreneurs. However, some have concerns that McConnell’s proposal could result in crackdowns on related industries.
Sparks opened his store’s doors only five weeks ago, but already business is taking off, he said. He sells a range of hemp-based products, everything from twine to cannabidiol oil, also known as CBD oil.
Hemp is a varietal of cannabis, though lacking the psychoactive properties of its close cousin, marijuana. As a crop, it can be used for everything from fiber to food.
CBD oil, derived from hemp, is increasing in popularity as well. Though it has not been approved by the FDA, many look to it as a way to treat a range of conditions, from anxiety to inflammation to symptoms associated with neurological conditions.
Sparks is hopeful Congress will move forward with the change.
“I think it would make doing business a lot easier on the financial aspect of things primarily,” Sparks said. “And it would take away a little stigma. That would help.”
Hemp historically was a major crop in many parts of the country, but it was banned in the 1950s, after a decades-long tightening of laws around cannabis. The plant is widely cultivated in other parts of the world, but it remains tightly controlled in the United States.
A push to revive a hemp industry in the United States took a major step forward with the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed states to launch pilot programs allowing the limited cultivation of hemp.
McConnell hopes to take the next step to loosen federal restrictions around hemp in the next farm bill, currently in Congress. His proposal would differentiate between hemp and marijuana in federal drug law, and would make states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for regulating hemp production.
There has been bipartisan interest in Washington for relaxing hemp laws, including from all three members of Vermont’s delegation, according to their spokespeople.
“Who knows how big it could be,” McConnell said in a recent radio interview in Kentucky, touting hemp’s economic potential.
“Hemp could end up in your car’s dashboard, it could end up in your food, it could end up in your medicine,” he said. It “has many diverse potential uses and we are optimistic it could be very significant for Kentucky agriculture.”
It’s not just Kentucky.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts sees great potential for the industry in Vermont.
“It’s another form of agriculture that we need to explore,” Tebbetts said. “And if the federal government could get out of the way, I think it would have a chance to take off even more than it has already.”
Tebbetts regards hemp as a promising opportunity for Vermont agriculture.
Hemp, he said, has the potential to help bolster farmers economically, similar to the way maple syrup production has proven a lucrative side business for some in agriculture in Vermont. He recently visited a dairy farm that also had 15 acres of hemp.
However, there’s a “cloud” over the industry because of the federal restrictions, which leaves many people reluctant to get into hemp now, he said.
According to the National Hemp Association, only a handful of states don’t allow some form of hemp cultivation now.
In some states, law enforcement have opposed hemp cultivation — citing concerns that looser laws around the cannabis varietal would weaken marijuana laws.
McConnell’s proposal would be a big step forward for the budding industry, according to Geoff Whaling, chair of the National Hemp Association.
“It really creates a level playing field,” he said.
Like Sparks in Brattleboro, people around the country who have become involved in the hemp industry have struggled with the logistics of running a business because of the federal regulations, Whaling said.
Lifting the federal restrictions on hemp won’t totally free up the industry. The McConnell proposal authorizes states to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on regulations.
Because of hemp’s resemblance to marijuana, there will continue to be a need for regulations, he said, if only to provide law enforcement a way to differentiate between what is being grown legitimately and what is not.
“Permitting will always be part of this crop,” Whaling said.
However, some involved in the industry have reservations about McConnell’s proposal.
Joel Bedard, of the Vermont Hemp Company, sees McConnell’s proposal as a path to relaxing the laws covering the hemp industry while cracking down on its other cannabis cousins — specifically the medical and recreational uses of marijuana.
“It’s a bait and switch,” he said.
He is also concerned about industrial competitors, specifically pharmaceutical companies, which he said could harm small-scale CBD oil producers.
Bedard has been in the hemp industry since 2014, and will be growing the crop in four different states this year, including Vermont.
He said there has been a high level of interest in his business, and described the industry as “bullish.”
Aside from hemp’s potential industrial and food uses, it also could bring with it a slew of environmental benefits, he said. It can be beneficial to soil quality and has a high rate of converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, he said.
“There’s an opportunity here for an agricultural revolution,” Bedard said.