WASHINGTON – Maryland is pushing ahead with plans for a pilot project to examine industrial hemp as an alternative to tobacco — even though most of the officials associated with the project have doubts about the crop’s potential.
The Legislature this year ordered the Department of Agriculture to begin a four-and-one-half-year study of industrial hemp, allotting $34,000 in fiscal 2001 for the pilot program.
Hemp was outlawed by the federal government because it has trace amounts of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, but industrial hemp, by definition, contains no greater than 1 percent THC.
The state department needs a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to begin test programs at all. Besides Maryland, only Minnesota, North Dakota and Hawaii have passed legislation to permit hemp production.
State agriculture officials were supposed to have reported to Gov. Parris Glendening and the General Assembly by Friday on the progress of the pilot program. But Bill Gimpel, chief of plant protection and weed management in the department, said Thursday that the report is going to be a little late.
He has been scouting sites for possible test plots, but is having difficulty finding an acceptable state property. The legislation orders that the pilot programs take place only on state-owned land.
Even if he can make the research happen, Gimpel has reservations. He said that Canadian hemp farmers have had limited success marketing their product.
“One of the things I have heard is that for every product that hemp is used in there are substitutes,” said Gimpel. “The substitutes are reported to be just as good and less expensive.”
Pat McMillan, special assistant to the state agriculture secretary, said that the department is not “necessarily convinced that it (hemp) is going to be a profitable crop.”
“It is not a silver bullet for farmers,” he said. “But it is conceivable that the marketplace for it could be bigger than it is right now.”
Hemp advocates say that is exactly the point — markets for the crop will be created if states like Maryland allow their farmers to produce it.
“It is a chicken-and-egg thing,” said Gail Glen, vice chair of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. “While the industrialists want the industrial hemp, they don’t use it because they can’t get it.”
Maryland farmers will try an alternative crop if businesses think it is feasible to market, said Mark Seibert, the Frederick County soil conservationist, even though he was unaware of just what kind of profits hemp might bring.
“Any crops that present an opportunity we would be in favor of,” said Seibert. “Our farmers who are trying to make a living are having a hard time because of the commodity prices.”
But farmers willing to give hemp a chance may have to jump more hurdles than it is worth. They have to wait for the results of the state pilot project and, under the law, they would be subject to state police oversight if they grew the crop.
Sgt. Bernard Shaw, legislative liaison for the Maryland State Police, said police could “come in during business hours or unannounced to check” the crop.
The law lets police test samples of the hemp crop to ensure that the THC levels are within the correct range. But Shaw said that most authority over the hemp production would remain in the hands of the Agriculture Department.