Vermont hemp growers upset by proposed new rules on medical marijuana

An official from the Vermont Department of Public Safety on Wednesday defended proposed new rules on medical marijuana and said fears that they will hurt hemp farmers are unfounded.

Lindsay Wells, the department's director of a program that allows some sick people to use marijuana for symptom relief, said the rules would affect only the four medical marijuana dispensaries operating in the state.

The rules change several aspects of the way medical marijuana is regulated in Vermont. Among the changes: Terminally ill people would be exempt from the requirement that they be patients of the prescribing doctor for at least six months, and dispensaries would be allowed to deliver medical marijuana to patients.

But most of the attention during Thursday's hearing of the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee was focuses on the relationship between marijuana and its botanical sibling: hemp.

Both hemp and marijuana are derived from the cannabis plant, and Joel Bedard, founder and CEO of the Vermont Hemp Company, said the rules could be interpreted as restricting his business.

Hemp is legally defined as containing less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana's psychoactive ingredient. It has been used historically in a range of foods, fuels and fiber.

Bedard told the legislative committee that the rules appear to place "industrial hemp ... under the confines of the medical marijuana dispensary system," which he likened to "corn being regulated due to the possibility of it being used to make whiskey."

He and others who attended the meeting complained they were not told of the pending rule changes earlier in their development.

Wells insisted the changes were meant to affect only the state's four medical marijuana dispensaries and not the broader hemp industry. She said they were designed to allow the dispensaries to begin selling a type of hemp oil — cannabidiol, or CBD, widely reported to be effective in treating children with seizure disorders.

Netaka White, co-founder of a Middlebury-based company that makes a type of hemp oil used in food, pointed to a section of the rules referring to "hemp-infused product," including hemp derivatives used in "oil, solvents, ointments, tinctures, and edible or potable products."

"That could at some future date lead to the prohibition of the cultivation of hemp for anything but fiber," White said.

Attorney General William Sorrell issued an advisory in April saying possession or sale of CDB oil does not violate state law. He cautioned that federal law allows growing hemp only for research and requires a special permit.

Wells said operators of medical marijuana dispensaries asked for rules that would allow them to produce and sell CDB oil. She said the rules were designed to keep the cultivation of hemp for CDB oil separate from the cultivation of higher-THC marijuana for other medical purposes.