Hemp has long had an identity crisis because it's a type of cannabis, the same plant as marijuana, but without the THC that produces the "high" of pot.
Before the 1930s, people could use cannabis any way they liked, for making rope or clothing, as an herbal medicine or as a recreational drug. Then, came a national "Reefer Madness" campaign that painted marijuana as a step on the road to perdition, dragging along its utilitarian cousin, hemp, as well.
But many farmers knew all along that hemp – defined as a cannabis plant with less than 0.3% THC – was a great crop for making clothing, paper and CDB oil, all of which are legal.
Massachusetts legalized hemp in the same 2016 law legalizing recreational marijuana; in 2018, the state set up a permitting process to grow hemp and issued 13 licenses. But until recently, 73,000 acres of Bay State farmland designated as "horticultural" could be used for growing fruit, vegetables, Christmas trees and tobacco, but not hemp. That land was taxed at a lower rate, so a hemp farmer using the land might jeopardize that tax break.
The Baker-Polito Administration, through the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, exercised its discretion on April 28 to clarify the definition and open that acreage to hemp farming.
Why hemp? Consumers looking for natural fabrics recognize hemp as a good material for clothing. The budding CBD oil industry derives its products from hemp farming. Hemp is a crop that does well in the state's climate and soil, and the demand for it has grown as people have become educated about its uses.
In 2019, before the horticultural designation was changed, Mark Amato, who was then and still is president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, told the Springfield Republican that changing the law “could affect a pretty wide swath of the agricultural community.” He noted there were very few Bay State farmers who didn't have some land registered as horticultural, which meant it couldn't be used for growing hemp.
“Overnight, a new crop has been legalized,” Amato said. “Because it was illegal for so long, it’s a very new marketplace that’s not well-developed.”
Legalization – and now the vote that allows hemp farming on land taxed as horticultural – opens a door for more Massachusetts farmers to grow this lucrative crop. That can only be good for farmers and for our state's economy.
Editor's note: This editorial corrects an earlier version. Acreage was opened to hemp farming after the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources clarified the definition to allow that to happen.