Vermont to initiate hemp testing pilot program


Among the last official actions taken by outgoing Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross was to create a hemp testing pilot program.

Ross signed a memo announcing the program the morning of Jan. 5, the day of Gov. Phil Scott's inauguration. Incoming Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts was briefed on the initiative and supports it, officials said.

To be considered hemp and not cannabis, the plants must have less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary psychoactive chemical in cannabis.

Previously, there was no official mechanism for Vermont's hemp growers to have their product tested, though many industrial growers have labs to test their crop or have it sent to third-party labs for testing.

At least one large-scale Vermont grower said Tuesday that his company welcomes the experiment as a route toward greater legitimacy for the industry.

Though Vermont legalized hemp cultivation in 2013, producers are still in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, because Vermont does not have a federally approved hemp pilot program.

The testing won't change that, said Tim Schmalz, plant industry section chief for the agency. Further, the state is going to test only plant matter and not concentrates processed from hemp.

"Just because you submit a sample and it comes back with less than .3 percent, if you go on to process that hemp, it doesn't mean it will stay at or below .3 percent," Schmalz said.

Hemp concentrates are a rapidly expanding sector within the cannabis market, especially in Vermont where constraints on medical marijuana and the stalling of recreational use legislation have spurred large investments in cannabidiol, or CBD, products.

CBD products, which can be made from hemp, are touted as a treatment for epilepsy and other conditions, though the Food and Drug Administration prohibits supplement companies from marketing health claims.

Former Attorney General William Sorrell published at memo in 2015 saying Vermonters shouldn't fear prosecution for purchasing or using CBD products, but they remain federally banned.

Schmalz said the state won't be testing hemp concentrates, because after it's been processed, the hemp is no longer considered an agricultural product.

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If hemp tested by the state exceeds the 0.3 percent THC threshold, officials are required to notify law enforcement. After discussions with the attorney general's office, the agency decided it will fulfill that requirement by notifying local law enforcement, either the county sheriff or municipal police.

Schmalz said he's not sure what police will do with that information, but he acknowledged that it could lead to arrest or prosecution. The state won't provide test results directly to federal agencies, but most local law enforcement agencies work closely with federal officials.

"The question is what does law enforcement want to do. Are they intent on prosecuting people for growing hemp that just barely exceeds .3 percent, or are they interested in going after someone who might be using the hemp program as a cover for growing illegal marijuana?" Schmalz said.

"If you have a concentration of .36, that's not pot. If it comes back at 5 percent, well, now you might be growing something interesting," he added.

Alejandro Bergad, CEO of Green Mountain CBD, said the pilot program is a good first step. His company, which recently garnered a $250,000 investment from a local venture capital firm, grows hemp at a farm in Hardwick. It processes the plants into cannabidiol pills and oils.

Bergad said Green Mountain CBD is likely to participate, though it already tests its plants and concentrates at a third-party lab and posts the results online.

"I think it's a good service and a good way to start moving forward," Bergad said. "It's good to have some oversight in the industry as a whole."

Bergad said he believes having a testing regime in place will help Vermont get its hemp program recognized by the federal government. That in turn will allow Green Mountain CBD products to be certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — something it's currently unable to do.

Schmalz said he's not sure whether the pilot program will have any impact on the organic certification process but said that if it does "that would certainly be a positive side benefit."

The primary reason the state is trying the program is to help Vermont growers know what their crops are producing, develop and fine-tune its sampling and analytical procedures, and gather information that could be useful in future rulemaking.

For a $150 fee, the state will test samples from up to 50 growers in the first year. Applications will be released in March and are due in April. If more than 50 apply, the agency will hold a lottery for participation. Participation is voluntary.

There were 29 growers in the Vermont Hemp Registry last year, and so far 22 have registered for the 2017 growing season, so it's not clear a lottery will be necessary. Growers can register at any time and put seeds in the ground, Schmalz said.

Schmalz said the state is hoping the fees will cover the program's cost. But officials are "taking a bit of a shot in the dark" because they don't know how much the work will cost. He said the $150 is comparable to fees in other states.


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