Hemp group: Bill would ‘disintegrate’ new industry
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A bill that restricts where industrial hemp can be farmed in Maryland would “disintegrate” the state’s fledgling hemp industry in just its second year, the head of the Maryland Hemp Coalition said last week.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shelly Hettleman, prohibits the production of hemp on farms within two miles of a residential community of 10 or more homes. The bill is one of two from Baltimore County legislators seeking to restrict hemp production statewide.
“It will be hard to find a hemp farm in Maryland that isn’t within two miles of 10 residences,” said Kevin Atticks, founder of Grow & Fortify, a Baltimore company that manages the coalition. “This bill as drafted would disintegrate the industry.”
Maryland hemp growers got their first opportunity to confront Hettleman at the coalition’s inaugural advocacy day in Annapolis on Feb. 3. In addition to briefings about ongoing cultivation research and other industry concerns, several lawmakers, including Hettleman, stopped by to address the new coalition of more than 80 members inside the House office building.
Hettleman, a former state delegate, was sworn in later that evening to the state Senate, filling the District 11 seat vacated by former Sen. Bobby Zirkin in December. She said her bill is purely in response to complaints from constituents regarding the odor of a new hemp operation in Lutherville-Timonium. She said she bears no ill will toward the hemp community.
“I don’t have any interest in stopping an economic vehicle in this state,” she said. “(Residents) feel like their quality of life is being dramatically affected by the smell. … If there’s a way you can take care of the odor, I’m gone.”
One of those constiuents claimed he nearly lost his federal security clearance after repeatedly arriving to work smelling like hemp, Atticks said. Hemp and marijuana, both strains of cannabis sativa, share a similar odor. Nearby residents have also blamed the farm for health issues, including coughing fits and respiratory ailments.
“We just don’t know enough about the science of this,” Hettleman said. “I don’t think our science has caught up with our policy making.”
She took questions and comments from a civil audience, including Vince Piccinini, owner of the disputed hemp operation on Broadway Road.
“I respect what you’ve done because you’re being transparent,” he said.
When approached by a reporter, he declined to comment further.
Other coalition members criticized the bill. Hemp’s odor, which has been described as acrid or skunky, is a product of the plant’s terpenes — organic compounds that emit a heavy smell to protect it from predators and attract pollinators. Terpenes are harmless, one member said, and exist in candles and cosmetics.
“The claim that you’re getting hurt by terpenes has to be shut down,” he said.
“She says the science isn’t there,” another member said. “But the legislation is getting ahead of the science.”
Hettleman has said her bill will shut down less than 10 of the 60-plus hemp farms in the state. But the legislation is unclear, Atticks said.
“The question at hand is what does a residential community with 10 or more homes mean?” he said. “Does that mean a subdivision with 10 or more homes in it, which would affect a smaller set of hemp growers around the state? … That’s an undefined term.”
The statewide scope of Hettleman’s bill may be an opening tactic in a negotiation between she and the hemp community toward a more localized proposal, Atticks said.
Another bill by Democratic Del. John S. Cardin would prohibit the Department of Agriculture from issuing a hemp license to a farm within 25 feet of a property or properties with three or more individual residences. An exception would be made for growers who raise the crop in an indoor facility that exhausts its fumes to the outside with “approved purifying apparatuses to adequately reduce all odors.”
Both bills are designed to outlaw Piccinini’s operation, but they’re also a serious affront to the state’s right-to-farm law, which defends agricultural operations against nuisance suits, Atticks said.
“The state has made a public policy decision that agriculture is worth protecting, but the question is to what end?” he said.
Growers are expected to protest the bills again at hearings before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on Feb. 25.
After the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production, the Maryland state government launched a research program pairing hemp farmers with state colleges and universities last year. Its first season concluded in the fall. The state recently announced the program will continue this year with the eventual goal of allowing farmers to produce the crop independently.
Legally, hemp must contain less than 0.3-percent THC, the psychoactive element that makes marijuana users high, or it must be destroyed. Hemp can be raised for its cannabinoids, which are used as a supplement in many products, including food, shampoo, topical lotions and oil drops. Hemp fiber is also used in products ranging from auto parts to building materials and clothes.
The coalition will have to educate the state’s public, not just about right-to-farm issues, but about the crop itself, Atticks said — a process that may have a long road ahead of it. Before the event, building security prevented several coalition members from bringing in legal hemp products, including hemp buds, hemp seed oil and hemp balls, a chewy protein snack made with hemp seeds.
“We walk up to the place with hemp balls, and it all goes to hell,” Atticks joked.
CORRECTION: Maryland Sen. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, was initially labeled a state delegate in this article. She was a delegate at the Feb. 3 meeting this article covers but was sworn in as a state senator later that evening. She replaced former District 11 Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who resigned in December. The article has been corrected.
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