Bill calls for research into possible production of industrial hemp in state

A bill unanimously approved last month by the legislature’s Environment Committee eventually could lead to the production of industrial hemp in the state, an activity the U.S. government has yet to legalize.

The proposed legislation calls for the state agriculture commissioner to establish a pilot program “for the purpose of studying the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp.” Sites for the plant’s production would be certified and regulated by the department.

While testifying on an unrelated bill last week, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, revealed that the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods Resort Casino, is considering growing industrial hemp, whose uses include fabrics, carpeting, home furnishings, auto parts, animal bedding, foods and beverages, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, among others.

“My interest is in providing a crop for farmers — tobacco farmers and others — who are looking for something else to grow,” Osten said Thursday. “I’ve talked to the Mashantuckets. They have large areas of land that need to be put back into production.”

A Mashantucket spokeswoman confirmed that the tribe is interested.

“We’ve been exploring a variety of potential economic diversification opportunities,” Lori Potter, the Mashantuckets' director of communications, said. “Industrial hemp is merely one of them, and we are interested in its potential as an eco-friendly, sustainable building material. At this time, we are in the early research phase to determine if it is a viable option for us.”

Osten said the idea also has been pitched to the Eastern Pequot Tribe of North Stonington.

Although they are from the same species of plant — Cannabis sativa — industrial hemp and marijuana are distinguished by their level of tetrahydrocannabinol, referred to as THC, the principal psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. Under the bill approved by the Environment Committee, industrial hemp is defined as having a THC concentration of no more than 0.3 percent. Generally, a concentration of 1 percent is considered the threshold “for inducing intoxication or psychotropic effects.”

As a variety of Cannabis sativa, industrial hemp is regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

The 2014 Agricultural Act, also known as the U.S. Farm Bill, allowed states to allow institutions of higher education and state agriculture departments to establish pilot programs for the growth and cultivation of industrial hemp for research purposes. So far, 13 states have done so.

In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law a 2014 bill that provided for a study of the feasibility of legalizing industrial hemp “for the purpose of encouraging economic development and increasing the number of new businesses in the state.” In 2015, Malloy signed another bill legalizing industrial hemp in Connecticut, allowing for its growth, use and sale. Although the measure removed industrial hemp from the state’s list of controlled substances, the plant remains illegal on the federal level.

The current bill, which would have to be approved by the state Senate and House before the governor could consider signing it into law, calls for the Department of Agriculture to fund two new positions at a cost of more than $280,000 over the next two fiscal years. However, Osten, the Sprague senator, favors a less costly approach involving the hiring of a consultant to help launch the pilot program.

Under the proposal, the program would be modeled on one that's been developed by the State of Kentucky.

The legislation has the support of state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Reviczky, the Connecticut Farm Bureau and the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, also has urged passage of the bill. In a letter last month to the Environment Committee’s co-chairmen, Courtney expressed concerns “regarding a lack of action from the state in implementing an agricultural research pilot program for industrial hemp cultivation.”

“I believe that our state can benefit from industrial hemp research through the collaboration of agriculture and entrepreneurial stakeholders in Connecticut,” he wrote.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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