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Mass. House passes bill to help grow hemp industry

A lady bug sits on a leaf of a young hemp plant at a research station in Aurora, Ore.Gillian Flaccus/Associated Press/Associated Press/file 2019

Not too long ago, the only thing House Speaker Robert DeLeo knew about hemp was that as a kid growing up on the North Shore he and his friends used it to make bracelets.

Times have changed, and so have Massachusetts laws.

“I just discovered they’re now making clothing out of it,” the speaker said Wednesday, thanking Cambridge Rep. David Rogers, who he called “the hemp guy,” for bringing concerns about hemp cultivation restrictions to his attention.

The growing of hemp was legalized along with marijuana in 2016, but farmers that want to grow the industrial-use cannabis plant still can’t cultivate the crop if their land falls under an agricultural use restriction.


The House voted to rectify that on Wednesday, passing legislation on a vote of 152-0 that would allow farmers with agricultural deed restrictions on their land to grow hemp. It would also qualify hemp farmers for the property tax breaks enjoyed by growers of other crops.

Rogers, the House chair of the Committee on Cannabis Policy, said the bill would be a boon for many farmers in rural parts of the state that own 73,000 acres currently under agricultural restrictions.

The state’s agricultural preservation restriction program pays farmers the difference between the fair market value of the land and the lower agricultural use value in exchange for a deed restriction on the land.

“It should be a big boost to farmers, to jobs, to the economy,” said Rogers, a Cambridge Democrat.

While hemp cultivation became legal in Massachusetts in 2016, the federal government in 2018 passed a farm bill signed by President Donald Trump that legalized hemp nationwide, removing it from the federal government’s list of controlled substances.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states have enacted legislation to establish industrial hemp cultivation and production programs creating a market for hemp and hemp products that extend beyond state borders.


“We should be doing everything we can to make sure farmers can take advantage of this emerging market,” Rogers said.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat and the sponsor of the hemp farming bill (H 3535), said that prior to passage of the federal Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the plant was a major crop used in rope, paper and even the upholstery of Henry Ford’s Model T.

Then in 1970 under the federal Controlled Substances Act, the cannabis plant was listed as a schedule I drug putting severe restrictions on the cultivation of hemp, which comes from a different variety of the plant that produces the high-inducing chemical found in marijuana flowers.

“This bill will provide our local farmer equal footing in the new economy,” Pignatelli said.

DeLeo said the legislation was particularly popular among rural legislators, but Rogers said other parts of the state with facilities capable of manufacturing hemp products could also benefit.

“It can also mean jobs that aren’t in rural areas of the state,” Rogers said.

DeLeo, 69, said hemp has come a long way since he grew up, joking when asked if he used any hemp products that the only thing he remembers about the plant is weaving bracelets.

“I’m probably the wrong person to ask,” DeLeo said.

A variety of products made from hemp -- hemp seed, protein, clothing and other items made from hemp fiber -- are approved for sale in Massachusetts, while others are still restricted.


Under Department of Agricultural Resources and Department of Public Health guidance, the sale of any product containing CBD oils derived from hemp -- which are said to have therapeutic benefits - is prohibited.

Rogers said he intended to look closely at the DAR and DPH guidelines, and did not foreclosure the possibility that he would recommend further action to open up the market for additional hemp products.

“There’s a possibility in the future that the House will address, if need be, the new restrictions on CBD oil,” he said.