Hemp proponents envision manufacturing facility in Sprague

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Sprague — As part of his efforts to bring hemp manufacturing to eastern Connecticut, former Republican state representative and former Griswold first selectman Kevin Skulczyck on Thursday brought a group of interested parties to tour the former Fusion Paperboard plant on Inland Road.

Along with a state police escort onto the town-owned property, the group included a Canadian former hemp farmer, member of a Mystic company focused on "modern farming," someone who has done work in hydroponic farming, someone who has worked on hemp issues in Rhode Island, a former construction worker who wants to use hemp for the cosmetics he now makes, and a designer for Advanced Group, a Mystic construction company.

While hemp is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant species, it's a strain with much lower concentrations of THC than marijuana – and therefore without the psychoactive effects. CBD oil, which is extracted from hemp, has mushroomed into a ubiquitous way for people to treat conditions such as anxiety and pain. And Connecticut has the right climate for growing hemp.

"We want to support farmers going back to work," Skulczyck said. "This is an opportunity for farms to reinvent themselves."

Skulczyck envisions the Sprague site as a coop-style facility that could employ 500 to 1,000 people manufacturing things such as CBD oil, paper products and plastics. He's also looking at two other sites in Connecticut.

Skulczyck said he has also been consulting with Ancient Nutrition, people who are working with BMW and Boeing on hemp plastics, and a large business in Connecticut he said he can't yet identify.

The 2018 Farm Bill that Congress passed in December legalized the production of industrial hemp nationwide. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized states to create pilot programs to grow hemp for research, but a 2017 Connecticut General Assembly bill to do this didn't make it through the Senate.

But a current bill that would have the state Department of Agriculture establish a licensing program for the cultivation and production of industrial hemp has garnered bipartisan support in the legislature.

Last Friday, all 28 members of the Joint Committee on Environment voted for a favorable report on the bill.

The committee drafted that bill in late February, but more than a month prior, five local legislators introduced a similar bill: Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville; Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-North Windham and Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford.

Interest grows for growing hemp

Skulczyck recalls that when he was running for state representative in 2016 and debating opponent Tracey Hanson, she brought up the hemp industry but he laughed at her. Now, he would like to apologize, "because she was so ahead really of where things were going."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, has long been a vocal advocate of hemp.

"Being on the Agriculture Committee and representing the most rural part of the state, we've had a lot of in-person interactions in Connecticut, and we've seen the challenges of growing," Courtney said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

The congressman has been frustrated that Connecticut has fallen behind other states on production of industrial hemp, but he has been pleased to find support from Gov. Ned Lamont. For a state-regulated industrial hemp program, the governor put three positions and funding of $136,000 in his budget proposal.

Courtney and other members of the Connecticut congressional delegation wrote a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last week seeking guidance on Connecticut's pathway to cultivation, and Courtney is hopeful there will be a pathway for this summer.

"The interest level is off the charts," he said. "The farm economy has been stressed in Connecticut."

When Skulczyck was at the state Capitol on March 1 testifying in favor of the hemp bill, he met John Roe, who did some hemp farming years ago in Ontario, before moving to the U.S.

Roe said he testified at the request of Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton. Somers was also the point of connection that brought Shannon Culley, of the modern-day farming company Cultivation Bureau, into the fold.

Roe also met Dennis Bitzaya – a Middletown resident with experience in construction, who now wants to extract CBD oil for use in the soaps and creams he makes – at the legislature. Roe, Culley and Bitzaya were among those present for the tour Thursday.

Looking ahead, Skulczyck said he will invite the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to the site, and schedule a meeting with senators Somers and Osten.

e.moser@theday.com

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