After a multiple decade-long hiatus from New Mexico’s agricultural fields, industrial hemp is growing anew in state soil.
On Dec. 11, 2018, the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve the Hemp Cultivation Rule, making it legal once again for New Mexican farmers to cultivate the controversial, but lucrative, crop.
Hemp, one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants, is a variety of the Cannabis sativa species without the high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component that causes the “high” when cannabis is consumed recreationally or medicinally. Hemp’s return to the state comes after a nearly 100-year absence, according to Agricultural and Environmental Services Division Director Brad Lewis.
“Although, in general, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 resulted in a virtual halt to hemp production in the United States, I am guessing that hemp production in New Mexico was stopped in 1923 as a result of state laws,” Lewis said. “The last legal planting of hemp was during WWII when federal tax stamps were issued to farmers, granting authority to produce hemp for the war effort.”
The passage of the Hemp Cultivation Rule, which went into effect Jan. 1, required changes at the federal and state level. At both levels the rule’s enactment came in the aftermath of protracted legal battles and the clearance of a number of regulatory hurdles.
Former State Senator and current head of Probation and Parole Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, sponsored Senate Bill 6 which first passed in the Roundhouse in 2017 alongside a similar measure in the House. The two bills set to legalize and regulate the production of industrial hemp were vetoed by former Gov. Susana Martinez in the 2017 legislative session. The Legislature sued, and the lawsuit proceeded through the court system, eventually reaching the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Martinez’s vetoes were overridden in April 2018, with the five-member court stating the former governor failed to provide an explanation for her actions in the time period required by the state constitution. The bills were cleared to become law, and rules for production and licensing were drafted by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA).
In accordance with state law, any rule changes must be approved by the NMSU Board of Regents, which they did with a 3-0 vote during a special meeting on Nov. 29, 2018.
Another obstacle to U.S. hemp production was removed with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20. The $867 billion comprehensive bill descheduled hemp as a controlled substance, where it had been classified since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
The federal bill also allows for hemp farmers to take advantage of benefits such as crop insurance, government backed loans, and use of federal project water for irrigation purposes, which had been previously unavailable during prohibition.
Jeff Witte, the New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture, said he anticipates the adoption process for the new crop may be a slow one, identifying economic uncertainty as a factor that may deter state farmers from entering an unfamiliar market.
“The truth is – we don’t know yet,” Witte said. “Industrial hemp is a crop that comes with substantial production risks, but individuals willing to invest and work with processors may have the opportunity to capitalize on a value-added industry that includes oils and other supplements.”
According to an estimation by the National Conference of State Legislatures, hemp is used in more than 25,000 products spanning nine markets.
Hemp also has the potential to become a financial boon for the state. The Hemp Business Journal, an industry publication, reports that 2017 U.S. sales of industrial hemp amounted to $820 million, with projections for the market to reach $1.9 billion by 2022. Products derived from cannabidiol (CBD), an extract of hemp currently undergoing studies for potential health benefits, accounted for $190 million of 2017 sales. In addition, Politico reports hemp grown for CBD oil can bring in as much as $8,000 per acre, compared to less than $600 per acre of corn.
In water-starved New Mexico, hemp could also be a valuable alternative to traditional crops due to its relatively low water requirements. According to the Pacific Standard, “Hemp can be grown to harvest on about half as much water as corn can, for example.”
Michael Chappelear, a spokesman for the state industry organization New Mexico Hemp Association, said, “The (NMDA) is now calling the shots, so for anyone who’s interested in producing hemp, that’s their first stop.”
Chappelear said the association will work in conjunction with the NMDA and NMSU to determine which strains grow most effectively in various climate conditions in New Mexico.
Two license categories are available for hemp production in the state. The Continuous Hemp Production License, available since Dec. 15, 2018, covers indoor growers and those producing hemp for CBD production year round.
“The department currently has 21 individuals licensed under this category, utilizing approximately 45 acres of indoor space to produce hemp,” Lewis said.
The Annual Hemp Production License, which is directed at growers that will be planting outdoors, recently became available for applicants.
When Chappelear was asked for the best piece of advice he would give farmers contemplating a move into the hemp industry, he provided a pragmatic answer: “Vet your seed sources very carefully, because there’s a lot of bunk seed out there. At this juncture, that should be your biggest concern.”
The NMDA is currently accepting applications for Continuous and Annual Hemp Licenses on their website.
Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites.