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Farm bill paves way for would-be hemp growers in New Mexico

December 22, 2018

Just as New Mexico’s Department of Agriculture is beginning to accept applications from farmers who want to grow hemp — following a yearslong struggle between advocates for the crop and Gov. Susana Martinez — President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a bill that legalizes hemp across the country.

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill took hemp, which is related to the marijuana plant, out of the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice. Under the new federal law, prospective hemp growers will have to submit cultivation plans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or state government agencies.

A state Agriculture Department spokeswoman said Thursday would-be hemp farmers must be licensed by her agency. The department already is accepting applications for those wanting to grow hemp in greenhouses, Kristie Garcia said, and the department will start accepting outdoor growing applications early next month.

Jerry Fuentes, a Northern New Mexico land grant advocate who lobbied the Legislature for years to allow research of hemp production, was happy, though not surprised, to hear Trump signed the farm bill.

“It was the farmers who really wanted this,” Fuentes said in an interview Thursday. “This has been a long fight. The governor opposed us at every step.”

Several times in recent years, Republican Martinez, who leaves office at the end of the month, vetoed bills passed in the Legislature by huge bipartisan margins that called for a hemp research program.

When she vetoed such a bill in 2015, she said in her veto message that legal hemp might be confusing to law enforcement agencies because of its similar appearance to the marijuana plant. Advocates pointed out that hemp is different than marijuana because it contains very little THC, the ingredient in marijuana that causes intoxication.

Since the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill allowed states to establish hemp research programs, dozens of states have done so — with few, if any, reports of confusion by police.

The fiber of the hemp plant can be used for a number of products, including clothing, cardboard, carpets, paper, rope and pet food. It’s also the source of cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonpsychoactive compound used as a medicine for epilepsy, pain and other conditions. CBD products already were legal in New Mexico.

Last year, Martinez vetoed two similar hemp bills but failed to provide veto messages, even though the Legislature was still in session. Lawmakers took her to court over those and eight other vetoes, saying her actions were unconstitutional.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court upheld a decision by a state district judge who sided with the Legislature, and the bills became law.

The state Agriculture Department in October held five public hearings around the state about the hemp program. Late last month, the New Mexico State University Board of Regents, which oversees the department, published its rule for hemp cultivation, including licensing requirements, fees, and inspection and testing requirements.

The annual fee for outdoor hemp growing is $800. For continuous (indoor) growing, the fee is $900 a year.

To grow hemp legally, the crop must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, Garcia said.

The state Agriculture Department’s website states: “Cannabis, in excess of .3 percent THC and grown under a hemp licenses, will be required to be destroyed. A grower with a hemp field that exceeds .3 percent THC may work with a New Mexico Department of Agriculture inspector to determine if a subsequent test to determine THC levels may have different results.”

There is no limit to the number of hemp cultivation licenses the department may issue.

In addition to a nine-page application form for the license, those who want to grow hemp must submit to a background check by police, Garcia said.

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