Staff Columnist

Legal hemp could make farmers into accidental criminals

Lanesboro, Minn.
Lanesboro, Minn.

The Iowa Legislature passed a law this year legalizing agricultural hemp, and state leaders expect their plan to regulate hemp production to receive federal approval in time for the 2020 planting season.

That’s good news. Iowans historically had many uses for hemp, until the versatile crop was unfairly linked to drugs and effectively outlawed last century.

Reintroducing hemp is sure to be a slow and clumsy process. Hemp farmers will be subject to a unique list of rules and regulations. I hope we won’t make them criminals along the way.

Growers must submit to fingerprinting and a background check. Each operation will be limited to 40 acres. Annual license fees could cost growers $1,000 or more, plus an additional $1,000 fee for the state officials to test the plants.

Policymakers say those rules are necessary to meet federal requirements, fund the hemp program and ensure market access for big and small farmers.

One reason for the hefty costs is that the Iowa Department of Agriculture is tasked with verifying the chemical contents of hemp, to make sure it’s not an illicit drug.

According to the law in Iowa and other states, the plants are classified as hemp only if they have 0.3 percent or less tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis.

Anything more than that is considered marijuana, which remains a controlled substance.

Already, at least one Midwestern farmer has been swept up in hemp hysteria.

Luis Hummel reportedly started growing hemp last year near Lanesboro, Minn., about 20 miles north of the Iowa border. However, he lost his license this past May and was ordered to destroy his crop valued at more than $3 million, the Star Tribune reported, after his crop was found to have as much as 10 times the legal limit of THC.

Even worse, Hummel faces felony charges for selling and possessing a controlled substance.

“If a CBD product tested too high for THC, we would expect that to be handled as an administrative matter,” Hummel’s lawyer wrote in a statement to WCCO in Minnesota.

Growing hemp is a new project for farmers, and there are innocent ways the crop might inadvertently exceed its THC limit. While 10 times the legal limit might sound like a lot, it’s actually quite weak compared to marijuana products people use recreationally.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture advises crops exceeding the THC limit will be destroyed. The department is not a law enforcement agency, and its informational materials do not mention criminal penalties.

However, since the law will continue to recognize non-compliant plants as marijuana, it’s possible county prosecutors could file charges, as we saw in the Minnesota case.

In a recent interview, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig acknowledged few other crops are subject to such stringent oversight.

“Our piece of this is really pretty straightforward. We oversee the growing of the product. But you’re absolutely right that there is a handoff or a nexus with law enforcement,” Naig told The Gazette’s Rod Boshart last month.

The modern American hemp industry is in its infancy. The federal government authorized limited pilot projects in 2014, and passed a law last year allowing states to develop full hemp production programs, although such programs are subject to strict federal oversight.

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Given the stigma of hemp as a cousin to marijuana, perhaps it’s understandable that state and federal policymakers have opted to move slowly. Even so, officials must pay close attention to ensure we don’t make unwitting criminals out of well-meaning farmers.

“Obviously, if some part of it isn’t working, we’re definitely willing to tinker around with it,” said state Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, one of the lawmakers who helped write Iowa’s hemp bill. “We want the law to work. We’re going to stay engaged with stakeholders.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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