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Legislature extends a lifeline to Massachusetts hemp farmers

Budget amendment would create new market for crop hamstrung by state, federal rules

Haley Games of Haverhill held up a sign to support the farming and production of hemp during a Massachusetts Hemp Coalition rally outside the State House in 2019.
Haley Games of Haverhill held up a sign to support the farming and production of hemp during a Massachusetts Hemp Coalition rally outside the State House in 2019.Erin Clark for The Boston Globe

After two dismal seasons that saw the market for their crop sharply curtailed by conflicting regulations, Massachusetts hemp farmers and their supporters are cheering a new state budget amendment that would extend a lifeline to the promising agricultural sector.

The provision would allow hemp farmers to sell their plants to legal marijuana dispensaries. It was introduced by Republican state Senator Ryan Fattman of Webster and is headed to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk after a successful vote in the Legislature Friday.

Proponents hope it will create a lucrative new market for hemp farmers, who have been hamstrung by state rules banning them from the most profitable segment of the industry: edible products containing cannabidiol, or CBD, a popular cannabis-derived compound that doesn’t get users high and may have health benefits.

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At the same time, it should provide marijuana dispensaries and their suppliers with a cheaper source of CBD, lowering prices for consumers.

“It literally changes everything for small hemp farmers like myself,” said Linda Noel, a longtime advocate who grows hemp at Terrapin Farm in Franklin. “Our ranks dwindled this year, and I was not going to renew my license before [Fattman] filed this amendment. His foresight has given me hope that finally this will be a viable crop for me and so many small farmers.”

Farmers showed off different varieties of hemp, a non-intoxicating component of marijuana, at Terrapin Farm in Franklin in 2019.
Farmers showed off different varieties of hemp, a non-intoxicating component of marijuana, at Terrapin Farm in Franklin in 2019.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Massachusetts voters opted to legalize hemp — a variety of the cannabis plant containing almost no THC, the primary compound responsible for marijuana’s characteristic high — alongside marijuana in a 2016 ballot initiative. But in response to the federal legalization of hemp in 2018, agricultural officials in Baker’s administration last year blocked state-licensed hemp farmers from processing their plants into edible products containing CBD.

Their guidance has forced Massachusetts farmers to sell their hemp for relative pennies for use in less profitable products such as biomass or topical CBD lotions that aren’t ingested. Meanwhile, gummies and other technically illicit CBD-infused edibles made by unlicensed or out-of-state producers remain ubiquitous online and at Massachusetts convenience stores, with little enforcement by local health authorities.

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“All the [current] situation is doing is hurting Massachusetts farmers,” said Hillary King, a cannabis advocate and business consultant who drafted and lobbied for the new language. “It really is maddening. If hemp farmers [licensed by the agricultural department] can’t access the over-the-counter retail market even though out-of-state companies can, at least let them access the dispensary market.”

Workers for the Healing Rose made CBD-infused lip balm and other products containing the compound at this facility in Newburyport in 2019.
Workers for the Healing Rose made CBD-infused lip balm and other products containing the compound at this facility in Newburyport in 2019.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For marijuana processors and dispensaries licensed by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, the proposed new law would provide a far cheaper means of obtaining CBD for use in edibles, tinctures, and other cannabis-infused products.

Current state law says such firms cannot obtain CBD from outside sources, including even from lab-tested hemp grown by farmers with licenses from the state Department of Agriculture Resources. That forces marijuana companies to set aside precious space in their expensive indoor marijuana-cultivation facilities to grow high-CBD strains of cannabis that don’t fetch nearly as much at retail as products that are high in THC.

For consumers and patients who prefer CBD’s mild effects over the high of THC — and don’t want to gamble on gas station gummies of unknown provenance — the result of the restrictions has been a limited selection of expensive CBD products at marijuana dispensaries.

Proponents hope that if Baker allows the amendment to become law, variety will improve and prices will come down, while lowering costs for dispensaries and directing profits to struggling farmers.

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“The hemp industry here in the Commonwealth is under great duress and has been for some time,” Fattman said in a statement. “It is absolutely heartbreaking to see what is happening to some hemp farmers. . . . Unless this necessary first step is taken, Massachusetts hemp farmers and processors will continue to be unfairly locked out of the market here and face financial and personal ruin.”

Fattman’s office has said state agricultural officials are supportive of the proposed change; Baker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Owners of marijuana retail and processing businesses also are cheering Friday’s vote. David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said his industry group is strongly encouraging the governor to sign it in time for farmers to make decisions about next year’s growing season, which starts in late spring.

“It’s a big win,” he said. “There’s no downside to it at all, and it helps out a lot of folks, especially farmers who had the rug pulled out from underneath them last year.”

A sign posted on the outside of Terrapin Farm's main greenhouse cautions police and other visitors that the plant being grown there is legal — and not marijuana.
A sign posted on the outside of Terrapin Farm's main greenhouse cautions police and other visitors that the plant being grown there is legal — and not marijuana.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.