Proposed changes to the Farm Bill would make it easier to grow hemp in Maine. Credit: BDN file

The 2018 farm bill may have legalized hemp production, but it’s going to take language in the 2023 farm bill to remove lingering red tape regulating the crop.

Those regulations stem from laws governing production of marijuana and, according to hemp growers, cast an unfair net over the growing of all cannabis.

Hemp is the botanical class of cannabis grown specifically for industrial, fiber or medical use. Unlike marijuana strains, hemp contains low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound known as THC that produces the “high” sensation.  

Under the existing farm bill, federal laws do not go far enough in making the regulatory distinction between the two classes of cannabis. That, according to hemp growers, unfairly lumps them in with the growers producing hallucinogenic products.

The Hemp Advancement Act of 2022, introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, would attempt to solve the problem.

“Hemp still lives in the shadow of marijuana legislation,” Pingree said. “Many of those [laws] are antiquated when marijuana was really a controlled substance and the hemp producers are getting caught up in them.”

Under current law, hemp must contain no more than 0.3 percent THC. That’s far below what can make someone high, but enough to doom an entire season’s crop, according to hemp growers.

It’s a problem because all hemp must first be tested in a laboratory approved by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and growers don’t know if their hemp crop has exceeded the 0.3 threshold until it’s tested. By that time, it’s too late to do anything about it and it must be destroyed.

“Even if you grow hemp with THC over that threshold, there are ways to process it in such a way it can be used as hemp,” Pingree said.

Hemp is used in medical products, construction materials, textiles, shoes, rope, bioplastics, insulation and biofuel. It grows quickly and requires little to no herbicides or pesticides. The roots of hemp plants aerate the soil, help prevent erosion and remove toxins. There is ongoing research in northern Maine looking at using hemp to remove toxic “forever chemicals” from the soil.

Hemp testing is logistically challenging for Maine hemp growers as the nearest DEA-approved laboratory is in New Hampshire. Pingree’s legislation would nix that requirement and allow Maine growers to be tested in Maine labs.

These changes are welcomed by growers like Geoff Nosach, owner of Panorama in New Sharon.

Nosach grows hemp for cannabidiol — or CBD — extraction for use in a variety of medicinal products found to help treat seizures, anxiety, pain, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease.

The hemp grown by Nosach tests below the 0.3 percent level for the delta-9-THC, the primary molecule among the psychoactive compounds. But the number goes up when lesser psychoactive THC molecules are factored in.

“Now the government wants to count the total THC in hemp,” Nosach said. “Normally our plants harvest at 0.5 or 0.6 total THC, and below 0.3 percent for delta-9.”

Those levels won’t get anyone high, but they will require Nosach and other growers to harvest their crops early, before the THC levels can rise.

“Our hemp with 0.5 THC is completely non-reactive because the CBD levels overrides the THC,” Nosach said. “But once they shift to testing total THC, we will have to harvest our crop when it’s immature and that means we are sacrificing up to two-fifths of our harvest potential.”

That rate of harvest is not economically sustainable, according to Nosach.

In addition, anyone who has been convicted of a felony may not legally grow hemp. Pingree’s legislation would do away with that prohibition.

Nosuch said over the coming growing season Panorama should be hitting its stride and he estimates having a crop worth more than $50,000 on just a quarter-acre. On top of what his farm grosses, there is money to be made at the extraction labs and the companies making various CBD products.

“It’s all in Maine,” he said. “Maine people making money off one Maine hemp farm.”

Lumping hemp THC thresholds in with marijuana makes no sense, Nosach said, especially since marijuana is no longer a scheduled substance.

“This is all because of draconian drug law holdovers,” he said. “It’s so many layers of infuriating.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.