CT hemp farmers want in on the adult-use cannabis industry

HARTFORD — Over the last four years, more than 200 Connecticut farmers took a gamble and began growing hemp, the marijuana plant with such low levels of the psycho-active chemical THC that the federal government allowed it to be grown for commercial purposes, especially extracting the chemical CBD, which is ubiquitous in many over-the-counter health products.

But now, with a glut on the hemp market and the budding Connecticut adult-use cannabis industry, hemp farmers want to make the transition to the more lucrative species, stressing that their expertise and natural sunlight in greenhouses make more sense than the four industrial grow facilities that are serving both the 10-year-old medical cannabis market and the nearly 2-month-old retail sales of the drug.

State law and the adult-use cannabis industry are stacked against them, warning of the possibilities of an over-production that could make the new retail industry and the planned social-equity program less lucrative than envisioned in 2021 when state lawmakers focused on allowing communities that were victims in the failed war on drugs to join in the future legal-cannabis landscape.

Hemp farmers recently made their pitches to the legislative General Law Committee in support of a proposal to allow them to apply for cultivator or micro-cultivator licenses from the state Department of Consumer Protection and join the adult-use market. Opponents warned that more cannabis growers could depress prices and change the rules of the emerging adult-retail market, which is currently supplied by the four growers who for years have supplied the state’s medical cannabis program. 

“Allowing licensed hemp producers to jump ahead in the queue and become cannabis cultivators would completely undermine the established social equity-driven licensing process,” wrote Deborah A. Caviness, Daniel Glissman and Adam Wood, co-founders of the year-old Connecticut Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, in prepared testimony. “Hemp farmers have had the same opportunity to apply for social equity or general license lotteries as anyone else, and the majority of hemp industry stakeholders chose not to engage with it. It is thoroughly unfair for them to be allowed to skip so many steps, as well as to avoid the expenditure of valuable time and ancillary resources other applicants employed in the submission of their applications.”

Brant Smith of Cheshire and Becky Goetsch of Killingworth told the committee that they already have the expertise to succeed in growing the more-lucrative THC-heavy species of the plant at a time when the recreational cannabis market needs more product to sell. “This has caused Connecticut to have the highest marijuana prices in the country,” Smith told the committee, stressing that the shortage may continue through 2024.

“We hemp farmers would be a partial solution to the state’s problem and would advance the rollout of the recreational marijuana program if we could convert our hemp licenses,” said Smith, who has nearly two dozen employees. “Not only would more product would be available to the market, but that product would be a craft product, of small, high-end batches produced sustainably. We use the sun in our production instead of what indoor growers do, easing the strain on out environment.”

He also complained about the high cost of cannabis grow licenses, which necessitate deep-pocketed business partners, at a time when the sharp fall in hemp prices have pushed most of the original Connecticut hemp farmers from the business. He estimated that only a few dozen remain.

Smith asked for lawmakers to allow the crop conversion as soon as this summer, at the height of the growing season. “Most hemp farmers have 1,000 square feet of space, 2,000 square feet of space. It’s tiny,” he said, stressing that the state’s current four companies that grow cannabis can use up to 250,000 square feet of production. “Demand far exceeds supply,” He said, estimating that his farm could produce about 4,500 pounds of cannabis flowers per year

State Rep. Mike D’Agostino, D-Hamden, co-chairman of the committee, said that the bid by the hemp farmers is to essentially “jump the line” to join in the social-equity programs. “We would be forming joint ventures ourselves,” Smith replied, acknowledging that his operation is not in a census tract deemed eligible for participation in the Social Equity Council program.

Goetsch, president of the Connecticut Hemp Industry Association, who followed Smith in the public hearing Thursday afternoon, said that before her family farm shifted to hemp, it was a local second-generation garden center and nursery.

“We’re in the position where we’re constantly trying to bring new things in and diversify our farm’s offerings so we can support the third generation as well as meet our community needs,” she said, adding that when federal law changed in 2018, the operation began its transition. The chemical CBD found in hemp has also helped her personal health and medical needs, Goetsch said.

“The hemp farmers are a craft industry and we’re committed to the cannabis plant,” said Goetsch, whose farm grows several hundred hemp plants on 2,000 square feet and sells whole hemp flowers and herbal teas. “We’ve spent four years fine-honing our skills, building out our facilities, some more than others, and we all grow different scales. But ultimately we’re environmentalists, we’re craft producers and we have immense integrity.”

She estimated the current number of hemp farms in the state at 78, down from more than 200 several years ago, but only a handful of farmers seem interested in converting to cannabis.

She said the issue of social equity could be addressed by allowing hemp farmers to offer training and mentoring programs for those in targeted neighborhoods that are mostly urban. “A lot of people have really invested a lot of money into this industry and should be able to try to recoup some of those costs,” Goetsch said.

The committee has until the afternoon of March 21 to act on the proposal.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT 

 

 

Becky Goetsch, left, and Brant Smith, in the Legislative Office Building after asking state lawmakers to allow hemp farmers like themselves to join in the state's new adult-use recreational cannabis industry. 

Becky Goetsch, left, and Brant Smith, in the Legislative Office Building after asking state lawmakers to allow hemp farmers like themselves to join in the state’s new adult-use recreational cannabis industry. 

Photo by Ken Dixon

Hemp plants containing no more than a low legal limit of the psycho-active chemical THC can be grown and sold legally under a 2018 federal law.

Hemp plants containing no more than a low legal limit of the psycho-active chemical THC can be grown and sold legally under a 2018 federal law.

Steve Gonzales / Staff photographer

 

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