In this Thursday, June 13, 2019, photo, a lady bug sits on a leaf of a young hemp plant at a research station in Aurora, Ore., that's part of Oregon State University's newly formed Global Hemp Innovation Center. Credit: Gillian Flaccus | AP

The state of Maine cannot seem to get it right when it comes to hemp and CBD. This is a fast-growing industry with enormous potential for Maine, but state regulators are constantly rewriting the rules, sending threatening letters and upending an industry that should be regulated, of course, but should also be encouraged.

We are members of the Maine Hemp Policy Council, a coalition of hemp growers, processors, distributors and retailers that all have a lot hanging on Maine’s approach to CBD.

CBD (or cannabidiol) is a compound extracted from the hemp plant that is widely available across Maine and the U.S. By some estimates, the CBD market could be worth $16 billion nationwide by 2025. This past year, retail sales of CBD products were estimated to total at least $600 million. You’ve probably seen CBD being sold everywhere from pharmacies to gas stations to medical marijuana stores.

The industry is taking off, so what’s the problem? In a nutshell, Maine regulators have twice in the past year announced that they are banning or severely restricting CBD sales statewide. The timeline goes like this:

Hemp was legalized federally last December when the 2018 Farm Bill finally removed it from the list of federally controlled substances. But then in January, Maine state health inspectors began ordering vendors to remove food products containing CBD from their shelves. This seemed to be driven by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration statement that food products containing CBD are not permitted under FDA regulations.

Of course, Maine food inspectors are governed primarily by Maine law rather than federal law, and so the Legislature quickly acted to right the ship. LD 630 was passed as an emergency measure in March and stated that the sale of “food products within the State that contain hemp may not be restricted or prohibited within the State based solely on the inclusion of hemp.” This ended the crisis, for a little while.

Fast forward to July, and the state issued a new policy that CBD can only be added to food if it is derived from Maine-grown hemp. We’re Mainers, and we all want to support Maine businesses, but this policy is a big problem on a couple levels. First of all, the demand for CBD in Maine far outpaces how much hemp can be grown and CBD produced in our state.

Second, the state provided no specifics on its new policy. How will the policy be enforced? What counts as a food product? Vape cartridges? Tinctures? What happens to the hundreds of stores in Maine selling edible CBD products imported from other states? Without any specifics to speak of, we had no idea what to expect or how to respond to this policy.

We also believe that the policy is illegal, since the U.S. Constitution does not permit a state to provide preferential treatment to its citizens. We hired lawyers and voiced our concerns to the powers that be in Augusta. In response, the Attorney General’s Office informed us that it interpreted LD 630 — the legislation that saved us in March — to require this strict policy, but also told us that when LD 1749 (another piece of non-emergency hemp legislation from last session) takes effect on Sept. 19, food products could once again contain non-Maine derived CBD.

Frustratingly, a Portland Press Herald article published several days after the state responded to us had a slightly different take from the state. A Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spokesman told the paper’s reporter that the department is uncertain whether LD 1749 will end the requirement that hemp be sourced locally.

The Maine Hemp Policy Council certainly disagrees with the state’s interpretation of current statute, but the much bigger point here is that we need a consistent, not-overly-restrictive approach to hemp. For starters, growth of Maine hemp should be actively encouraged, but so should the sale of hemp grown elsewhere. This is the only way to meet demand in Maine, and to stay on the right side of the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly, hemp should be regulated to ensure that it is safe and clean for consumers, but regulations need to be clear and precise. There should be no more policies that are frantically announced at the 11th hour and leave the industry guessing as to what is and is not allowed. We will be glad to work with the State to find a sensical approach to hemp and CBD.

Gary Runnells is the owner of Iron House Supplements in Newport. Phil Hendricks is the owner of Gerrick Alternatives, a Hallowell-based distributor of CBD products in Maine. Both are members of the Maine Hemp Policy Council.