Get Ready to See Hemp Fields Cropping Up in New York

By spring, New York farmers may be able to grow hemp legally for the first time in decades.

The Hemp Research Bill, introduced in Albany by Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo and Senator Tom O'Mara, was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last year. As its title suggests, the bill allows researchers to grow and study "industrial hemp" — that is, cannabis with less than .03 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC, the chemical that causes cannabis users to feel high).

New York's bill follows the Agriculture Act of 2014, a federal law that legalizes growing hemp for research by state departments of agriculture and universities under the guidance of individual state laws.

Once the regulations are finalized by the end of this month, ten hemp growing licenses will be awarded by the Department of Agriculture. Universities or colleges can apply for a license and do research on their own or partner with a farmer. Already Cornell University and Morrisville State College have expressed interest in participating in the research.

"We're at the very beginning for a new and exciting crop for New York State," Lupardo tells the Voice. She says states need to take steps on their own while the federal Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 makes its way through Congress: "We must take advantage of every opportunity we have while waiting for the federal government." The federal bill would remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which currently regulates it as a form of marijuana. "Hemp is a form of cannabis and it's caught up in this big mess," Lupardo says. "Eventually — we hope sooner rather than later — the federal government will release the prohibition on growing hemp and get us back to where we were decades ago. We were a primary source of growing hemp for the country and the world."

Industrial hemp is used for a variety of products: fiber, oil, wax, seed foods, paper, cloth, and fuel. Recently, many have started to grow hemp for high-cannabidiol (CBD) medical products as well. Cannabidiol, the second most prominent chemical compound in cannabis, is non-psychotropic and has been found to be useful in treating pain, inflammation, anxiety, and seizures.

Lupardo, who represents Binghamton, Vestal, and Union, says she was inspired to propose the bill when she learned of hemp's economic potential and its broad applications. "We think that hemp is a potentially lucrative crop for our area of farmers," she says, "but also the uses of hemp are so vast and beyond what most people would realize."

The bill itself is aimed at researching which "cultivars," or different types of hemp plants, grow best where, says Lupardo. "We're trying to find out whether the Southern Tier is the best place to grow textile or biofuel hemp, or what might be best in Long Island or in North Country."

Despite the vast uses for hemp, Lupardo had to work to educate her colleagues in the assembly and the senate. The law enforcement community, she recalls, was particularly concerned about the bill. Many were concerned that hemp looks similar to marijuana, making it easy to grow marijuana in the middle of a hemp field to disguise it. 

But those fears are unfounded, she says. When placed next to each other, hemp and marijuana can cross-contaminate; one plant can't even be within blowing distance of the other. "If you plant marijuana around hemp, the hemp would nullify the psychoactive properties of marijuana," says Scott Giannotti, founder of the Cannabis and Hemp Association, a New York–based cannabis trade association. The security regulations in previous drafts of the bill, such as high barbed-wire fence and security cameras, made cultivation more difficult and went above and beyond what was necessary, according to Giannotti. "What do you think is really going to happen with the hemp crop — people are going to run in there, try to get high, smoke one joint, realize it doesn't work, and leave?" he says. The visible difference between hemp and marijuana is very distinct, Giannotti adds. Hemp stalks usually grow between fifteen and twenty feet, he says, while marijuana grows between four and five.

"It's a completely harmless crop," he says of hemp. And its nutritional value (which includes large amounts of amino and fatty acids), its utility in making strong textiles and even concrete, and its high CBD levels make it a sustainable source of food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.

"I think the potential is really big, but we have to also keep in mind that the industry is not going to grow overnight," says Susie Cody, who runs the New York chapter of the Hemp Industries Association. The bill is primarily focused on research, she adds, while commercial interests will develop over time. "If we have people who are willing to put the time in and the effort in, I see a huge possibility of New York having an industrial hemp crop and the supporting businesses to uptake the supply and get into the market and manufacture different products."

"I'd certainly hope that we get started with a foothold in this industry," says O'Mara, a Republican representing five counties in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions. New York is behind states like Kentucky, leading the way, and Colorado, which already have robust hemp industry research and manufacturing programs. "I wish it was a more wide-open ability for farmers to get into growing industrial hemp," O'Mara says. "This is what we were able to come up with to at least get things started."

The potential financial profits for the ten licensees will remain to be seen, O'Mara says, and will come down to how aggressively the agricultural sector engages the program. "I think it's imperative we get going with these pilot programs as soon as possible and expand from pilot setting to actual industry activity in New York," he says. "To get it up and running, [we need] to show that it can be done effectively and properly, to show that it cannot be abused. I really don't think that this is controversial at all." 


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