A series of five meetings to solicit public input on new rules for licensing hemp grows in New Mexico will begin next week.

The meetings could provide a critical opportunity for people to give feedback on the state's emerging hemp regulatory framework, which will guide an industrial hemp program overseen by the state Department of Agriculture.

None of the meetings will take place in Santa Fe. In fact, they'll mostly be happening in cities south of Albuquerque. Brad Lewis, a division director at the agriculture department, says this is because farmers are more spread out in southern New Mexico.

Right now, the proposed rules say any person, business, or institution can apply for a hemp license at least 25 days before they start growing a crop for production. A farmer must submit an application for a license for each new crop and location on which they grow. Licenses would have to be renewed yearly before February 1. People who want to grow hemp for personal use can obtain a license to do so, and would similarly have to renew it each year.

The department would review all commercial harvests to determine that the plants qualify as hemp and not other forms of cannabis. Hemp, a variety of the cannabis sativa plant, is defined by its negligible amounts of THCthe compound that produces a highand is mostly grown for its stalk, seeds and fiber.

The rules say any hemp plants that contain more than 0.3 percent THC "shall be destroyed at a later date," but doesn't say how the state would check this or follow through with the destruction. Locations growing plants containing more than 3 percent THC would be referred to police if caught.

According to Lewis, the most frequently asked question the department receives is about the listed cost of an application and licensing fee for non-personal growers: $900 per growing location. He tells SFR the estimate is meant to mark the higher end, and that the actual cost per location may be closer to $600.

"We don't expect the fee to be at $900, but we had to put a cap in there somewhere, just because we have no idea what this program is going to cost the department," Lewis says.

After the department incorporates public input from the five meetings taking place this month, Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte will send the hemp rules over to the New Mexico State Board of Regents for a final review. Lewis, who's taken the lead in drafting the rules, says he hopes the regulations will be finalized before January.

The emergence of industrial hemp in New Mexico is possible because of a state Supreme Court decision in April that overruled Gov. Susana Martinez' veto of a bill greenlighting hemp production. The bill was touted by some southern New Mexico legislators who believed that hemp could become a new cash crop.

In the months after the ruling, a group called the "New Mexico Hemp Association" formed. (An organization by the same, started by Michael Chappelear five years ago, is not affiliated with Browning's organization.) The new association's leadership has kept in contact with the agriculture department as it has drafted the hemp rules, according to Jill Browning, chair of the NMHA.

"We've been talking to a lot of individuals, especially in the southern region with bigger farms. They are all excited to grow hemp for their cattle," says Browning, who lives in Santa Fe but recently purchased 200 acres in Estancia to grow hemp. She adds that a state law preventing farmers from feeding hemp to cattle would have to change before it could be used as livestock feed.

Although she lives in Santa Fe, Browning has been growing hemp crops in Colorado the last four years under that state's regulations. She plans to relocate that farm to her Estancia property.

Lewis, the division director at the agriculture department, says he has received "a number of questions" from people outside the state looking to invest in New Mexico's forthcoming hemp industry. Applications from out-of-staters would still have to be tied to a person with in-state residency and property on which to grow, he says.

"We have had inquiries come in from growers that want to grow as little as half an acre of hemp, to people thinking about growing hundreds of acres of hemp," Lewis says. "The first year it seems like there's a lot of interest by people who just want to try it and see if they can grow it, [and] the commercial people who have experience and are coming down from places like Colorado."

Although no rule-making meetings will take place in Santa Fe, NMHA is hosting a "Hemp Fest" in the Railyard on Oct. 20. According to Browning, the purpose is to kick start networking for interested farmers, processors, manufacturers and anyone else who wants to get in on hemp in New Mexico.

At the event, Browning says, "we'll have speakers from Colorado, booths with vendors selling seeds and clones and all kinds of nutrients for farmers, demonstrations, talks, and just helping people understand everything that's coming."

Santa Fe Hemp Fest
9 am to 6 am Saturday Oct. 20. Free.
The Railyard

Statewide public rule-making hearings
2 pm Friday Oct. 12. Free.
New Mexico Department of Agriculture, 3190 S. Espina
Las Cruces, NM 88001

1 pm Monday Oct. 15. Free.
Espanola Library Conference Room, 313 N Paseo De Onate
Española, NM 87532

6 pm Monday Oct. 15. Free.
Los Griegos Center, 1231 Candelaria Rd NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107

11 am Tuesday Oct. 16. Free.
Portales Chamber of Commerce (Basement Classroom), 100 S. Ave A
Portales, NM 88130

6 pm Tuesday Oct. 16. Free.
Riverwalk Recreation Center – Power House Room, 400 Riverwalk Drive
Carlsbad, NM 88220