In the wake of a new recreational marijuana legalization bill signed on March 31 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, local hemp farmers are weighing their options on the controversial crop. Hemp is marijuana without THC, the chemical that affects the brain and causes inebriation.
Grower Gina Miller of Miller Organics-HEMP Flower POWER in Orleans County said she’d like to start growing recreational marijuana, but is waiting for “absolutes” from the state. Her experience with growing hemp, once that was legal, is that it required an initial investment of more than $50,000.
“I’m going to be sticking with hemp for now, because New York State, even though they said we could sell (hemp) ‘flower,’ there’s no regulations on how,” Miller said. “Farmers still can’t just directly sell ‘flower.’ We’re still held to some other layers of licensing, even though I’m not processing it.”
“Flower” is the green, fluffy substance that is generally smoked by cannabis users. Hemp and marijuana are related but different forms of cannabis, the most significant difference being that hemp flower does not contain THC. The process used to grow and harvest both types of cannabis is about the same, though.
Miller said many of the benefits worked into the recreational marijuana bill were originally sought by the hemp industry in New York. She feels as though she personally has warmed segments of the community to cannabis use for treating ailments such as anxiety and sleep deprivation. Cannabidiol (CBD) is derived from the hemp plant.
However, because of her experience with licensing and permit fees and state regulations, Miller is wary of starting a new crop.
Other growers, notably Tom Szulist of Singer Farm Naturals, are plunging into uncharted territory in New York as though it's a familiar walk.
“We’ve been growing the same plant for two years now and there’s really no difference in the plant, just genetics and variety,” Szulist said. “I’ve been doing it for quite some time.”
While Szulist downplays the differences, according to the new law, he will be able to grow cannabis with high THC levels and low CBD levels. Szulist asserts THC has a place in human health, just as CBD does, and explained the reason he started growing hemp, and other products such as garlic and cherries, was to improve the health of consumers.
“The real message here is there are about 141 cannabinoids in this plant, and the ones that are legal are having a profound effect on human health. This plant allows the expression of our genes in a very healthy way," Szulist said. "THC is just one of those components, which has its place in human health and human experience, but the beauty is all those other cannabinoids are going to be able to be more freely understood because of the legality of the THC coming into effect.”
Legalization of recreational marijuana creates a growth opportunity for small farms like his, Szulist said.
“One of the avenues (the state is offering) is a micro business where you go from seed to final customer use, and that’s the model we like,” he said.
According to Jeanette Miller of Eclectic Farmstead in Newfane, this micro-growers license appears to be the most promising for farmers.
“We’ll see how they roll it out,” she said. “They’ll probably limit the amount of plants people can grow under that license, but it’s the only license for people, normal people like myself, (where) we might be able to get into where it’s vertically integrated, where we can grow and also process, distribute and retail it. Maybe.”
The “maybe” is contingent on the Office of Cannabis Management, the state agency that will be created under the new law to oversee the industry and determine who gets a license to grow cannabis for sale.
As to whether and how established hemp producers are affected, it's still unclear.
The new law “doesn’t really state how or what we’re going to be allowed to do. They still need to come up with regulations,” Jeanette Miller said. “You have to wait until the regulations come out from the Office of Cannabis Management and the Cannabis Advisory Board. Once they come out with regulations, then it’ll explain how we’re allowed to sell our hemp. So, basically everybody who's sitting on hemp right now cannot sell it, but we’re supposed to be able to sell it in the future when regulations come out.”
Gina Miller is reducing her hemp crop to 10 plants this year and hopes to sell the harvest to one of the 21 licensed hemp processors in New York, though she thinks that is unlikely and is using her hemp grower’s license to research different non-THC varieties of cannabis.
Also, she said, she’s not ready to buy into a new process that could lead to further problems if she were to try her hand at recreational marijuana.
“I’m learning this about anything to do with government: when they write this stuff, it’s under the guise of obscurification. They obscure the facts within the document,” Gina Miller said, noting that it’s deceptive to say that hemp flower is legal to sell, then not say who can and how to sell it, just as it's deceptive to say it's legal to possess marijuana when the only source is the black market until legal dispensaries are open.
“I won’t do anything until there are absolutes,” she said. “(Not) until I feel like they’re not going to change the regulations.”