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‘We feel like the ugly stepchildren of cannabis’: Mass. hemp farmers wait in a regulatory purgatory

Kathleen Owens, left, and Linda Noel grow hemp at Terrapin Farm in Franklin.
Kathleen Owens, left, and Linda Noel grow hemp at Terrapin Farm in Franklin.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

When Massachusetts voters approved Question 4 in 2016, they legalized not just marijuana, but also hemp, a variety of cannabis that contains almost none of the high-inducing THC for which its cousin is famous. The fast-growing crop, which can be used to make everything from clothing to lotions to CBD edibles, was heralded as a moneymaker that could help prop up the state’s dwindling number of small family farms.

A constantly shifting legal landscape, however, has largely prevented the realization of that dream. And now, with a new growing season fast approaching, hemp farmers say they’re facing yet another setback: State agricultural officials won’t commit to a timeframe for implementing a law that was supposed to open up a significant new market for the struggling sector by permitting sales of hemp products to marijuana companies for use in edibles.

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The predicament leaves the farmers unsure whether it’s worth planting hemp this year.

“We feel like the ugly stepchildren of cannabis,” said Linda Noel, who in 2018 started growing hemp alongside her vegetables at Terrapin Farm in Franklin. “The hemp industry here in Massachusetts is once again on life support.”

The national legalization of hemp by Congress in 2018 essentially kicked off a game of policy ping-pong between state and federal regulators at no fewer than four agencies, with officials at the Department of Agricultural Resources (which oversees the sector) repeatedly scrambling to align their guidelines with changing hemp rules issued by the US Department of Agriculture and the Foof and Drug Administration.

Hemp farmers and processors feel rather like a dented, discarded ball in that game. They’ve endured several unexpected mid-season policy changes that scrambled the financial assumptions behind their decision to grow hemp, including a critical 2019 edict banning them from making CBD edibles, the most profitable market for their tightly regulated, lab-tested crops.

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Meanwhile, cheap, untested, technically illegal CBD gummies and other hemp-derived products remain widely available at gas stations and other retailers across the state, thanks to scant enforcement by the municipal health boards that are nominally charged with controlling their sale.

In December, as part of the state budget, legislators passed a measure intended to fix that incongruity: It allows MDAR-licensed hemp firms to sell flower and CBD oil derived from the outdoor-grown plants to marijuana companies regulated by the Cannabis Control Commission for use in pot edibles. Proponents called it a win-win that would simultaneously provide marijuana companies with a cheaper, local source of CBD (compared to growing their own high-CBD cannabis plants indoors) while opening up a lucrative new market for hemp operators, who are otherwise restricted to selling less-profitable CBD products such as topical lotions.

Unfortunately for local farmers, the complexities of implementing the seemingly simple idea have frayed what should have been a lifeline. While the cannabis commission says its moving quickly to allow sales of existing regulated hemp products, such as topical lotions at the marijuana stores and dispensaries it oversees, the commission and MDAR won’t say whether they’ll approve the far more profitable sales of hemp flower and oil this season, citing the need to craft a process for transferring the products that conforms to new USDA regulations published in January and enacted in March.

In a statement, MDAR spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said the department “is committed to the success of hemp farmers and the entire agricultural industry in the Commonwealth, and will continue to work with the Cannabis Control Commission to find a solution to ensure hemp producers can sell their products to marijuana retailers and allow new opportunities for the hemp industry.”

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Among the regulatory headaches that staffers at MDAR and the commission are trying to resolve: aligning the agencies’ differing testing standards for microbes and pesticides; creating a method for entering hemp ingredients into the commission’s strict “seed-to-sale” tracking system for marijuana products; and clarifying whether marijuana companies will need MDAR permits to handle hemp and incorporate it into their edibles — a question that hinges on whether pot operators would be “processing” or merely “utilizing” the hemp.

Officials at both agencies insist they understand the urgency of implementing the law, and the rough road hemp companies have had to walk so far. Steve Hoffman, chairman of the cannabis commission, told reporters last month that hemp farmers have been “kicked around,” and blamed state lawmakers for failing to consult his agency on the wording of the new law.

“This has not been handled well, in my opinion, since day one,” Hoffman said. “There’s been a lot of confusion, finger-pointing, and ‘[that’s] not my job‘ kind of [stuff]. . . . I don’t think [farmers] have been treated well, and I find it very distressing.”

Republican state Senator Ryan Fattman, who introduced the budget amendment allowing hemp sales to marijuana firms, said his office worked closely with advocates on the legislative fix and would continue to meet with MDAR “to ensure that this change is effectively implemented in a timely fashion.”

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Regardless of state officials’ good intentions, some hemp farmers are running out of patience. So far this year, 74 companies have won hemp growing or processing licenses, down from a high of 122 in 2019 (though another 31 license applications are pending).

Noel said a significant number of farms, including two others in Franklin, have simply given up on the volatile business for now. One of their frustrations is that MDAR continues to govern the sector through unpredictable, informal policy memos. Three years after it issued the first hemp permits, in 2018, the agency has yet to draft formal regulations for the sector or hold public hearings on its rules.

Still, Noel said she was encouraged enough by a meeting with MDAR officials that she planned to start making preparations for planting in May.

“MDAR understands we can’t plant a crop if we don’t know whether the end market will actually exist when we get to harvest time,” Noel said. “I believe they’re working to make things right, but until there’s a formal announcement, I don’t think the farmers sitting on the fence are going to be confident enough to go ahead and grow.”


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