Norwich — Nearly 50 farmers, local and state officials and other supporters of industrial hemp production in Connecticut stood in the rain at the banks of the Thames River on Tuesday and heard mixed views on how easy or difficult it would be to create a hemp industry in the state.
Jeff Wentzel of Niantic, a member of the Connecticut Hemp Association, said he already grows and harvests industrial hemp in several Northeast states, and said Connecticut is the only state in the region where the crop is totally illegal.
Asked how he transports the materials, given the federal designation of all cannabis plants as a controlled substance, Wentzel replied: “In a truck.” Wentzel’s crops produce CBD hemp oil, a legal product already sold in Connecticut and elsewhere for pain relief, anxiety and other uses.
Industrial hemp, a strong fiber plant that contains just a fraction of the psychoactive ingredient THC in marijuana, can be used for everything from clothing, rope, as a composite material to construct buildings and automobile parts, and as an animal feed, or flour for human consumption.
Matt Beaudoin, owner of Mystic Knotworks, a natural-fiber knot-tying and rope-weaving company, said there are no good sources of industrial hemp rope anywhere in the world, and he welcomed potential local sources.
Karen Williams of Groton said she is a retired medical care provider and started researching hemp to find an alternative to highly addictive opioid prescriptions for pain. She tried to get Tuesday’s participants to visualize the difference between marijuana and industrial hemp.
“It’s like a bicycle versus a Harley-Davidson,” Williams said, with marijuana being the Harley.
With growing political support nationally led by congressional leaders from large farm states, such as U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration have agreed not to enforce the ban on interstate transport of cannabis products.
But Jason Bowsza, chief of staff at the state Department of Agriculture, said the 2014 federal Farm Bill authorized states and land grant universities to develop regulations governing the production of industrial hemp. Regulations are necessary, because industrial hemp plants look exactly like marijuana, which is illegal in Connecticut, Bowsza said.
Connecticut is behind the curve, several farmers said. But Bowsza said his small department lacked resources to write the regulations. Only now, he said, is the agency hiring a staff attorney, who should be on board by July 1. The cost to develop a program was estimated at $250,000, he said, but his department was just cut $100,000.
Tuesday’s meeting, organized by Noank farmer Kevin Blacker to gauge interest in creating hemp production in Connecticut, was held on a vacant lot at 55 Terminal Way in Norwich. The site was chosen to show the potential of the deep-water Thames River and the parallel freight rail tracks to transport industrial hemp products to market.
Blacker is touting industrial hemp as a future crop for the struggling Connecticut dairy farming industry. Bowsza said his department supports the effort but reminded the meeting participants of the restrictions involved, including that the federal government still considers industrial hemp a controlled substance.
Other farmers did not want to limit the state’s discussion to industrial hemp production, saying the state should legalize recreational marijuana so that small farmers in Connecticut could start planting the revenue-generating plant, as their counterparts in Massachusetts already have started doing.
Bowsza said the states that have legalized recreational marijuana are “ballot measure” states, which Connecticut is not. He urged farmers in the Connecticut Farm Bureau, who hold annual county meetings in fall — weeks before the statewide elections — will have an opportunity to press their issues with candidates at that time.