The Vermont Model: Why Maine’s Industrial Hemp Program Can Succeed

AUGUSTA, Maine (Apr. 7, 2016) – In February, the Maine Dept. of Agriculture issued rules for hemp farming as required by a law passed last year. This means that the industrial hemp program is very close to being established in the Pine Tree State.

Although the new Maine rules clearly state that the new regulatory regime is not federally controlled and does not abide by their guidelines, they do warn of possible federal repercussions from industrial hemp farming. The rules read, in part:

“Persons growing industrial hemp may be subject to federal sanctions for what may otherwise be considered authorized conduct in the State of Maine and compliance with these rules does not exempt licensees from possible federal prosecution. The Department is not responsible or liable for the actions of industrial hemp growers under these rules”

The federal government prohibits the cultivation of industrial hemp in most cases. By relaxing regulations and facilitating development of a hemp industry at the state level, Maine opens the door to expanding this “illegal” market. But success ultimately depends upon whether or not Maine farmers are willing to begin cultivating the crop.

If too many farmers take the unlikely threat of federal prosecution seriously, the state of Maine will lose out on a viable cash crop. However, if Maine farmers simply ignore federal prohibition, they will create an atmosphere that will make enforcement of federal hemp prohibition virtually impossible.

THE VERMONT MODEL

Vermont has already blazed this trail with success, and if it serves as any indication, some growers will willingly take the risk and defy federal law, knowing the likelihood of prosecution remains extremely low.

In 2013, Vermont passed a hemp act that from a practical standpoint did basically the same thing as the new Maine law. When Governor Peter Shumlin signed the bill, he emphasized that hemp cultivation was still illegal under federal law.

“Although the growing of hemp will now be legal under Vermont law, it remains subject to federal anti-drug statutes. That means that farmers who choose to grow hemp do so at their own risk and need to be aware of the possible consequences”

This raises a very important question: if removing hemp from the list controlled substances at the state level doesn’t change anything – why are farmers – right now – growing hemp for commercial purposes in Vermont?

Two summers ago, Vermont Public Radio reported on the fledgling hemp industry.

"The three hemp plots our reporter visited were all started with seed sold by Europeans and shipped here illegally, including the hemp seeds that Netaka White managed to get from France. “This is our humble hemp patch,” says White, gesturing to the area outside his home in Salisbury where he planted 1.5 ounces of seed. “It measures about eight by eight [feet]. I don’t even know what percentage of an acre that is.”

White expects to get 12 or more pounds of seed when he harvests his hemp crop in late September and he’ll use that to grow even more hemp next year. Most of the Vermont hemp farmers seem resigned that this first crop will go towards establishing a seed supply."

When government removes obstacles from a lucrative market, people will move in to take advantage of the potential windfall, even when some risk remains. We see this dynamic playing out in states that have legalized hemp, and it will undoubtedly play out the same way in Maine.

Ultimately, Maine farmers will have to decide if they want to accept the small risk that the feds might shut them down. But with state prohibition removed, the path to hemp cultivation became much easier, and some enterprising souls will undoubtedly follow it.

So far, eight states have legalized hemp. As more states follow suit and production becomes widespread, it will become increasingly difficult for the feds to enforce their senseless ban. This growing movement at the state level will indeed ultimately block federal prohibition in practice.