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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Thetford Farmer Hopes Growing Hemp Will Soon Be Legal

VPR/Charlotte Albright

It’s been five years since hemp was declared a legal crop in Vermont. But there’s a catch. The law takes effect only if the feds declassify the plant—which is related to marijuana—as a controlled substance. 

Federal law still forbids growing hemp. But a new bill with wide support would legalize hemp in Vermont, despite the federal ban.   

East Thetford farm manager Will Allen has his fingers crossed.

A Willie Nelson song spills out of a boom box as a worker tends one of  fourteen greenhouses at Cedar Circle farm, where Allen works.  It sits on 40 organic acres along the river in East Thetford.  

The choice of music is not surprising, because Allen says the musician is one of a handful of supporters willing to help him buy another plot of land to plant hemp. He says the group would even help pay legal bills if he gets busted by the feds.

“So as soon as the state says go for it, we’re gonna go for it. And if we don’t have to go through the Ag  department, that makes it all easier for everybody,” Allen said.

But chances are hemp growers would at least have to register with  the state  Department of Agriculture.

Allen says high-protein hemp has many healthful uses—as a nutritious oil, a sustainably grown fiber for clothing and paper, a building material, a plastic substitute, even a bio fuel.  And he notes, Canada is already tapping those markets.

“It’s grown in Montreal. I mean, hello!,” an exasperated Allen said.  “Why can’t we grow it here in the United States, right? And the reason we can’t grow it in the United States is it’s tied in with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s belief that it’s a relative of marijuana, it’s a drug.”

Under the Vermont measure likely to come up for a vote this week, to be certified as hemp, a plant could contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

That’s why Allen says hemp is not a drug and that farmers are unlikely to hide marijuana in hemp fields. He says cross pollination would weaken the THC in pot, making it less marketable. Still, he expects a visit from the DEA if he grows hemp in East Thetford.

“We know that the federal government is probably going to seize that land, and then it will be in litigation,” Allen said.

But Allen’s state representative hopes drug enforcement agents have more important things to do than to go after hemp farmers. Teo  Zagar, of Barnard, sponsored the House hemp bill that has since been expanded and approved by the Senate.  Although the Department of Public Safety warns that farmers could be put at risk of federal prosecution, the measure has drawn tri-partisan support for a crop that used to be promoted, not prohibited, by the American government.

“And so on my first day in the committee room I saw a poster on the wall. It said, ‘Grow Hemp for the War.’ It was an old World War II poster. And so I asked the committee what the status of hemp was in Vermont,” Zagar recalled.

He expects to get his answer if the industrial hemp bill passes and the governor signs it.

Zagar  knows that time is running out this session, but he believes that planting will start--if not this season, then next year. Vermont is not the only state moving in this direction and federal legislation that would remove barriers to growing hemp has been introduced in Congress.