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SALT LAKE CITY — The growth of industrial-grade hemp — a close cousin of marijuana — is currently legally limited to colleges and universities, but that could soon change under a proposal from the Utah Department of Agriculture.
The department is working to get approval for local farmers to get a permit that would allow them to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.
The hemp plant closely resembles the marijuana plant in appearance, often causing it to get a bad reputation. Hemp can sometimes be found in everyday products such as clothing, cosmetics, oils, rope and rugs.
“Now this is industrial hemp, not marijuana, there is a difference,” said Melissa Ure, senior policy analyst for the Utah Department of Agriculture. “Industrial hemp has to be below 0.3 percent in THC in order for it to be considered industrial hemp.”
Under state law, only colleges and universities are allowed to grow hemp for research purposes, but now the agriculture department is asking for the public’s input in allowing others to grow it.
“You could do research on the fiber, it’s very fibrous, we know that you can use it for textiles and papers and things like that,” Ure said.
The agriculture department said it receives calls weekly from people, particularly farmers, expressing interest in growing industrial hemp. The Utah Farm Bureau said it's heard from a small group of its members too, who are considering growing hemp as a way to increase their bottom line.
“Farmers have always been an innovative group,” said Matt Hargreaves, vice president of communications for the Utah Farm Bureau. “They’re looking for ways that they can diversify. So if this is something that there’s a need for, maybe there’s further interest. But right now I haven’t seen a whole lot.”
Under the plan, anyone wanting to grow hemp would have to meet certain criteria before being certified by the agriculture department. Some of those requirements include having a research plan, disclosing to the department who would be involved in the process and submitting a security plan, Ure said.
Despite all of the talk about possible medical marijuana in Utah, Ure said a change in the hemp law would not play a role.
“Very clearly, this does not have anything to do with the medical marijuana debate,” Ure said. “This is industrial hemp for research, it’s very separate.”
The department of agriculture said the public comment period will likely begin in September, and if it goes through, the first growing permits could be issued in early 2018.