SANTA FE – With the federal government loosening its grip on industrial hemp, there’s a resurgence of interest in growing it in New Mexico – and a bill on the governor’s desk to kick-start that.
It authorizes the state Department of Agriculture to oversee and license the growing of industrial hemp for research and development purposes.
That would be a big breakthrough for the plant that has been outlawed for decades because it’s part of the marijuana family.
The way was paved by the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which gave the go-ahead for such research programs.
“Farmers in New Mexico and throughout the nation are no longer reluctant to advocate for it,” said state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, who has been promoting hemp development for 15 years.
Twenty states have passed laws establishing some sort of industrial hemp programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Hemp is used in a wide array of products, from clothing to food to automobile interiors to construction materials, but manufacturers must import it.
It can’t make you high, but because it contains trace amounts of THC – the hallucinogen found in marijuana – it is classified by the federal government as an illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act.
There’s a move afoot in Congress to change that: A bill co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp.
McSorley says the shift in federal policy meant that this year, for the first time, he encountered no organized opposition to his legislation. Senate Bill 94 passed the Senate 33-8 and the House 54-12. Gov. Susana Martinez has until Friday to sign or veto it.
Asked what action the governor planned to take on the bill, a spokesman for Martinez said Sunday the hemp legislation was still under review.
Supporters say hemp doesn’t require as much water as other crops and is pest-resistant.
“Today a lot of farmers are looking to diversify their options, and looking for additional sources of income, and in the future this could potentially bring that opportunity,” said Chad Smith, CEO of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, which supported the bill.
Jerry Fuentes, a part-time farmer in Truchas, has been trying to get hemp legislation passed for years.
“My grandfather grew it many years ago. … They made ropes, they made saddle blankets,” recalled Fuentes, who would like to grow it as a cash crop.
The state Department of Agriculture didn’t take an official position on the issue but worked to ensure that the legislation complied with federal law, said Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte.
He noted that there are plenty of hurdles – including the need to import hemp seed – to be cleared if the governor were to sign the legislation.
The most immediate hurdle, however, might be the sponsor himself. According to senators who saw the governor right after the session, Martinez was angry with Senate Democrats for blocking tax and capital outlay legislation, and singled out McSorley, who had filibustered.
McSorley said he’s optimistic that won’t matter.
“The issue before the governor is the importance of hemp to New Mexico,” he said.