AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s agriculture committee unanimously approved an emergency bill Tuesday that would allow Maine to treat hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD, as a food, not a medicine.

Supporters say L.D. 630 is the fastest way to reopen the lucrative CBD market to local farmers, bakers, processors and retailers before they miss out on the 2019 growing season, shut down their kitchens and lay off employees or lose customers to online, out-of-state rivals. The market all but shut down after a state-initiated crackdown in January.

Janet McAllister, the owner of Hippy Chick Natural Solutions in Sangerville, had to close her commercial kitchen that produced high-CBD edibles and lay off three employees after the state action. She begged Maine to help her and her employees get back to work.

“At my company, we’ve got a motto: Do the right thing,” said McAllister, who spelled out details of her company’s rigorous testing policy, product donation program and charitable work. “Now it’s your turn: Do the right thing by the people of Maine.”

Maine lost its share of what is estimated to be a $600 million national market last month when state inspectors cracked down on CBD foods, warning state retailers that they could no longer sell what federal authorities consider to be an unapproved food additive.

U.S. lawmakers, including Maine’s own Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, have asked the Food and Drug Administration to provide a legal means of using CBD in food in the wake of adoption of the U.S. Farm Bill, which legalized hemp and distinguished it from marijuana.

The state’s crackdown prompted Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, to come up with what he hopes is going to be a localized solution to the state-federal disconnect on CBDs. More than 40 hemp farmers, retailers, processors and CBD patients testified in favor of the bill.

The bill, if approved by the full Legislature, would change the state definition of hemp to match the federal one and allow Mainers to keep growing, processing and selling hemp-derived CBD products so long as they don’t try to act like it’s a medicine. That would mean no one could make any health claims.

Under questioning from committee members, a division director in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry said it would likely take weeks to write the rules to enact the law, but implied state inspectors would take no enforcement action until then.

Director Celeste Poulin said a state inspector had made a mistake when telling retailers to pull hemp-derived CBD edibles off the shelves. The state can’t say it’s OK to sell products that the federal government doesn’t deem safe, she said, but it isn’t seizing them, either.

Time is of the essence for Maine farmers, who must line up a source of certified hemp seed before filing for a state cultivation license. That application deadline is April 1, and lab-certified seeds are selling out fast, said hemp farmer Sarah Hewitt, who owns Victory Hemp LLC.

“The sudden policy change has severely impacted my business when I should be sourcing my seed, filling out my license application and making a farm plan,” she said. “Farmers could lose out on one of the highest-value agricultural commodities to come along in a very long time.”

Maine hemp farmers can expect to earn between $16,000 and $200,000 per acre, depending on their production method, product quality and end market, with CBD products bringing in the most money, Hewitt said.

“At a time when farmers are struggling to make ends meet and are being forced to sell parcels off to sustain themselves, we should be looking to encourage CBD hemp production in Maine, not discourage it,” Hewitt told lawmakers.

State authorities began sending out letters to CBD retailers last month to inform them of the state interpretation of a new Food and Drug Administration release labeling the hemp-derived as an unapproved food additive.

Maine retailers stopped selling foods, tinctures and capsules containing this non-psychoactive chemical compound found in cannabis, leaving tens of thousands of dollars of CBD product to gather dust. Products ranged from infused candies to tinctures to CBD dog biscuits.

Manufacturers that specialize in extracting the CBD oil from the cannabis plant for use in vape pens, edibles and tinctures are laying off employees and trying to figure out how to pay for the new extraction equipment, some of which carries a half-million dollar price tag.

Gerrick Alternatives, a Hallowell-based distributor of CBD products, is sitting on thousands of dollars of inventory it can no longer sell, said owner Philip Hendricks, a former school teacher who uses CBD to treat his Lyme disease pain. He has also laid off a worker.

“People want to get back to work,” Hendricks said. “I don’t want to lay off any more people.”

The CBD craze has jump-started Maine’s hemp industry. What began in 2016 as a small pilot program, with two farmers cultivating a quarter of an acre of hemp has grown into a 550-acre industry employing 82 licensed hemp farmers, according to 2018 state data.

Horticulturalist Gary Fish, who oversees the state hemp program, believes that market could double or even triple in 2019, given the high consumer demand for CBD and the legalization of hemp in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill.

The increasingly popular CBD – which has made its way into gas stations, health food stores and hardware shops across Maine – has not disappeared from circulation entirely, however. Retailers can still sell CBD products that can be smoked, vaped, or applied as a lotion.

All medical cannabis patients can still buy CBD from licensed caregivers or dispensaries.


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