New Old Harvest

Hemp legislation moves forward with relative ease

Janet Jarratt's family has a history with hemp.

In his younger days, her father raised the plant and used its fiber for rope on the farm. Now 94, his daughter says he still doesn't forgive the government for making growing hemp illegal.

"He can't get good hemp ropes anymore. He always liked to rope with them better, and the plastic ones are too stiff," says Jarratt, a dairy farmer in Valencia County.

New Mexico might be changing that law soon, as least incrementally. So far, the hemp issue seems to be cruising through the legislative session.

"What's old is new again," Jarratt says. "I think there's a real opportunity to maybe reestablish some of the things in a less hysterical way."

A bill that would allow the state to grow hemp for research purposes recently jumped through three Senate committees with little opposition before passing the upper chamber by a 33-8 vote.

Though similar bills have failed the legislature in over the past 15 years, this time lawmakers have something they've never had before—cover from the feds.

"There seems to be a whole change in the attitude and people are embracing it," says Jaime Chavez, a field organizer for the National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association.

Like its psychoactive counterpart, marijuana, hemp is a distinct species of cannabis. It can be used to create products as diverse as paper, oil and biofuels.

But unlike marijuana, hemp can't get you high—a fact that state Rep. Donna Irwin, D-Doña Ana, recently admitted that she couldn't get through her head for the longest time. Still, the plant's association with pot has kept it a controlled substance under federal law for nearly eight decades.

Last year, US Congress adopted the 2013 Farm Bill, which allows states to pass their own laws to grow and cultivate hemp, as long as it's tied to research and development and overseen by either a university or a state agriculture department. Nineteen states have since written their own hemp laws, and a core group of activists are lobbying to add New Mexico to that list.

The biggest argument is an economic one, especially for a state still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

"Right now hemp is a half-a-billion-dollar industry that we're losing out on," said state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, sponsor of the bill, during debate.

A companion bill in the state House of Representatives currently sits before the Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee. State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Chaves, who chairs that committee, tells SFR that hemp's possibilities "seem limitless" for farmers and ranchers. But she is awaiting input from the state agriculture department, which is housed at New Mexico State University, on the bill that passed the Senate.

Ezzell, herself a rancher, says she wants to make sure the bill has the department's green light before she holds a hearing in her committee so that "the public has every assurance that what farmers are growing is not pot."

Regardless, local farmers and ranchers are anxious to grow the plant as a crop. Jerry Fuentes, who grows squash, corn and horse feed in his residence in Truchas, says he'd like to get try hemp if the state allows it.

Fuentes says he wants to grow the plant for pharmaceutical and nutritional purposes. Hemp is the basis for many different kinds of commodities, from oil for food to fiber for car dashboards.

"There's different strains," Fuentes says. "Different strains for different altitudes and different climates."

Hemp requires less water to grow than crops like alfalfa or wheat, making it all the more attractive to farmers in the drought-laden American West, according to Lorette Picciano, executive director of Rural Coalition, a nationwide coalition group of farmers and migrant workers across the country. But her biggest argument is hemp's history as a traditional yield.

"The farmers believe it's a good crop for them," Picciano says.

The bill would restrict hemp cultivation for research and development tied to NMSU, which would eventually administer permits for farmers who want to grow hemp.

Establishing the rules for that permitting process could take time. Jarrett says even a fast-tracked rulemaking process would take at least six months. That, coupled with the fact that irrigation season has already started for her, means farmers won't realistically be able to grow hemp until next year if the bill passes this session.

The Santa Fe company Bio Design Labs is already working with farmers on hemp cultivation in Antonito, Colorado, just north of Taos. Organizer Joe Rael says if New Mexico approves the measure, his company will assist farmers in developing the best methodologies to grow hemp here.

But even though Colorado passed its own hemp legislation last year, that doesn't mean it's been smooth sailing for farmers looking to get into the business. Alfonzo Abeyta, who grows alfalfa and grain on his farm near Antonito, was planning to plant 130 acres of hemp last year. He ordered 400 pounds of hemp seed from Europe, but says the DEA seized it in San Diego on its way to Colorado.

"We waited and waited and waited for them to release the seed," Abeyta says.

That never happened, and instead Abeyta grew cattle feed. He says he'll try again this spring. But he's still technically limited from selling hemp as a crop for commercial use, though both Colorado and Kentucky are interpreting the current federal law in broad terms.

One measure before Congress would completely remove hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and allow farmers in any state to grow it. The bill is backed by both Democrats and prominent Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both of Kentucky.

Even if that legislation doesn't pass, McSorely argues that his bill will allow research for hemp's future commercial use.

The big question is: What will the governor do? Staff for Gov. Susana Martinez are tightlipped about where she stands on the issue. Spokesman Michael Lonergan says the office has "not yet reviewed this legislation."

A previous version of this story misspelled Janet Jarrat's last name.

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