New Mexico approves rules for industrial hemp cultivation

Farmers in New Mexico will be allowed to grow hemp beginning next year, setting the stage for a new industry that agricultural officials and others say could boost economic development in the state.

The rules were crafted over the course of a few months. The state agriculture department held a series of public meetings and the New Mexico State University Board of Regents signed off on the final draft during a special meeting Thursday.

The rules governing the industrial cultivation of hemp call for growers to be licensed. They also establish fees as well as testing and inspection requirements.

NMSU President John Floros said in an interview that hemp has the potential to revitalize farms across the state and he expects the industry to grow quickly given its profitability.

"We're importing a lot of products and bi-products of industrial hemp so this would give us the opportunity to produce industrial hemp here locally so we can create alternative income for our farmers," he said.

The effort stems from legislation that passed in 2017 and eventually became law earlier this year after the New Mexico Supreme Court settled a veto fight.

There's also a push in Congress by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make hemp a legal agricultural commodity, removing it from the federal list of controlled substances. Floros said that would provide more assurances for farmers in New Mexico and elsewhere.

In McConnell's home state of Kentucky, legalizing the crop went from a fringe issue to a mainstream cause and that state has emerged as a leader in developing a hemp industry.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. It has many uses, from rope and clothing to milk, cooking oil, soaps and lotions.

Hemp's comeback started with the 2014 federal farm bill, which included a provision allowing states to pursue hemp research and development. That allowed the crop to be grown on an experimental basis.

Nearly 78,000 acres (31,500 hectares) of hemp were grown nationally this year, up from nearly 26,000 acres (10,500 hectares) in 2017. Montana, Colorado and Oregon joined Kentucky as top 2018 producers, according to Vote Hemp.

It's too early to say how many New Mexico farmers might shift from alfalfa or other more water-intensive crops.

While New Mexico farmers would be starting from scratch next year, Floros said New Mexico State University's experts in economics, marketing, engineering and biochemistry will be valuable in helping the industry get off the ground.

The other benefit, he said, is New Mexico's climate and soil.

Under the rules, the growers will be working closely with the state agriculture department. Their crops will have to be tested to ensure the THC level is below a certain percentage. Crops will be destroyed if the levels exceed the standard.