Here in Massachusetts, it’s a very good time to be in the marijuana business. Pot is now legal for adults, and the unwieldy bureaucracy put in place to launch the new industry finally seems to be getting its footing.
The picture is murkier, though, for the state’s nascent hemp industry, which is related but distinct, and currently in legal limbo.
Case in point: Julia Agron, who operates a small, bustling farm tucked into an Amherst backyard. The operation is impressively varied: there are three goats, 12 chickens, a half dozen quails — and 200 hemp plants at varying stages of growth.
For the record, hemp and marijuana are basically the same thing. The big difference? Hemp contains a lower level of THC, the compound that gets you high.
But according to Agron — who’s also the outreach coordinator for the Northeast Sustainable Hemp Association — that lack of psychoactivity coexists with a number of remarkable qualities.
“First of all, I legitimately believe that hemp can save the planet,” Agron said.
“Hemp sequesters carbon when it’s growing at astronomical rates,” she added. “If you turn hemp into, for example, Hempcrete, you’re literally looking at a building product that sequesters carbon as it’s a building product."
What’s more, Agron says, hemp produces cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound known for reducing inflammation, pain, and anxiety.
“For personal use,” Agron said, “it’s a really important plant for humans to work with.”
When she licensed her farm with the state, Agron thought she’d be turning her plants into a range of CBD products, from hemp buds to CBD-infused gummies and pet snacks. But then, a few weeks ago, the state Departments of Public Health and Natural Resources upended those plans, warning in two separate policy statements that it’s illegal to sell hemp flower and CBD-infused food and beverages.
It was, Agron says, a frustrating development for an industry that’s been gaining momentum.
“Last year,” she said, “there were 14 licensed hemp farmers or processors in Massachusetts. This year, there’s about 104.”
And according to Agron, almost all of them want to sell CBD-based products.
“People who’ve invested in equipment, people who are investing in farming operations — it just created a lot of confusion and uncertainty,” she said.
At both the state and federal level, there’s palpable ambivalence about hemp’s present and future. The Massachusetts House just unanimously passed a bill aimed at boosting the local hemp industry by making it easier for farmers to grow it. And last year, President Donald Trump signed a sweeping farm bill that actually legalized hemp as an agricultural product, calling the legislation “a really tremendous victory for the American farmer.”
Earlier this year, however, the FDA reminded hemp producers and consumers that it retains the right to regulate hemp-derived products — and that several of the uses Agron originally envisioned for her plants remain illegal.
That communication, in turn, prompted the state’s recent warnings — which have left Agron feeling anything but victorious.
“Massachusetts has chosen to have a protected cannabis industry, regardless of where federal regulations are right now,” she said. “[But] at this point, we haven’t made that decision about a hemp industry.”