Food And Farm Industrial Hemp

In this Oct. 5, 2013 photo, a volunteer walks through a hemp field at a farm in Springfield, Colo. during the first known harvest of industrial hemp in the U.S. since the 1950s. (AP Photo/P. Solomon Banda)

P. Solomon Banda

Calling it good for agriculture, two Lake Havasu City GOP lawmakers are pushing to allow farmers to grow hemp without running afoul of state marijuana laws.

“I'm not a big proponent of marijuana,” Sen. Kelli Ward told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. “I am a proponent of economic development and ways to help Arizona to thrive.”

What that means, she said, is removing at least one legal hurdle that keeps Arizona farmers out of the hemp business: SB 1122 would say that the laws against marijuana do not apply if the concentration of THC, the psychoactive elements, is less than three-tenths of one percent.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli said the ban makes no sense.

He pointed out that while growing hemp is illegal, there's no prohibition on importing and possessing products made of hemp into this country. Borrelli illustrated that with a rope he bought at a grocery story that had been made in China.

“You'd have to smoke this whole bale here to get high,” Borrelli told lawmakers. “By that time, you're going to die of smoke inhalation before you get even impaired or intoxicated.”

The legislation is running into opposition from prosecutors and even the crime lab at the state Department of Public Safety, and the key is that, for all intents and purposes, marijuana and its less-psychoactive cousin are virtually impossible to tell apart.

There is a long history of hemp production in this country. Much of the paper during revolutionary days came from hemp.

“Our own Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper,” Borrelli said.

That's only partly right. While some versions of the document are on hemp, the copy on display at the National Archives is on parchment.

Either way, Borrelli figures it's a product that can easily be grown in this country.

“And, by the way, we can save a lot of trees,” he said.

Katy Proctor who represents the Department of Public Safety, warned lawmakers there are implications if they go down that path — and not anything to do with anyone getting “off” on hemp.

She said the DPS crime lab, asked to test a seized product to see if it's marijuana, does a simple test. That comes back pretty much with a yes-or-no answer.

But any law that makes legal very low-grade marijuana — which essentially is what hemp is — would then require the lab to do a “dry weight analysis” to determine the sample's THC content. She said that turns what is now a 10-minute test into one that takes two hours, no small difference when the lab is doing 10,000 of these a year.

Kathleen Mayer, a deputy Pima County attorney, said that creates problems for her office, too.

“When individuals start growing a product that looks visually just like marijuana, and they're driving down the road with bales of it ... the individual may say, ‘No, it's hemp,’ and the law enforcement officer isn't going to know that,” Mayer said. She said that forces prosecutors to have to send out samples and wait for results before deciding whether to pursue charges.

The backlog that already exists at the crime lab is only part of the problem.

“It's going to become a problem for defendants who may or may not be being legitimately charged and held,” she said.

There is another factor: The Drug Enforcement Administration pretty much bans growing hemp by prohibiting the interstate transportation of viable seeds. But the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that nine states already have laws that permit the growing of industrial hemp, specifically excluding it from their marijuana laws.

A vote on SB 1122 was postponed when Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, who signed on as a sponsor of the measure, suggested it might need to be reworked. She said it might be preferable to amend the state's agriculture laws to allow hemp cultivation rather than trying to alter the criminal code.

This isn't the first bid by some GOP lawmakers to pave the way for hemp production in Arizona.

The Legislature actually approved a measure in 2001 to allow the state's three universities study whether hemp production makes sense in Arizona. But that bid was killed by then-Gov. Jane Hull who questioned what she said was unwise use of “scarce resources.”

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