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Committee recommends bill legalizing sale of hemp products for qualifying licensees

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would widely allow the production and sale of hemp products for qualifying license holders is set to be debated in the Utah House.

HB302 authorizes the state Department of Agriculture and Food to provide a hemp-growing license to "a person who wishes to participate in an industrial hemp research pilot program," according to a summary attached to the bill.

The bill also allows those who would like to produce and sell hemp-based products "to distribute the registered hemp product in the state" if they obtain the license from the state to do so.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee that federal law now allows for states to permit the growing of industrial hemp, "but they have to authorize it in state law" explicitly.

Hemp has a vastly different chemical makeup than marijuana, he said, with hemp being defined as containing 0.3 percent or less of the psychoactive ingredient THC.

"You could smoke a whole room of it" and not get high, Daw told the committee Friday.

The bill would allow the state "to grant licenses for commercial production, essentially, of industrial hemp," he said.

Paper, rope and clothing are among the products made by industrial hemp, said Daw, as is CBD oil, which he said "is not psychoactive but appears to have some interesting properties for medicine."

The bill received support at the committee hearing from the Department of Agriculture.

"We've had a lot of interest in this, but until this time it would not be made available to the public to grow this," said Melissa Ure, senior policy analyst for the department, noting that such an option is currently only open to universities and the agency itself.

Ure added that she's hopeful the bill will help farmers "engage in new markets."

She explained to the Deseret News last year that despite hemp having only extremely small amounts of THC, its appearance as a plant is very similar to that of marijuana. Both belong to the cannabis plant species.

Libertas Institute, a libertarian think tank, also testified Friday in support of HB302.

"Hemp is … (used) for food, fuel, cosmetics, plastics, building materials," said Molly Davis, a policy analyst for Libertas Institute. "At least 27 states have passed laws broadening the laws of researching industrial hemp."

The committee unanimously voted to refer the bill to the full House of Representatives.

Some of Daw's other bills related to cannabis have been much more contested during this legislative session.

HB197, which instructs the Department of Agriculture to oversee the growing of full-strength marijuana for the purpose of enhancing research efforts in the state, was approved last week by the House with 38 votes — the fewest a measure can receive and still pass that body. It will be considered by the Senate Tuesday.

Some lawmakers who voted against HB197 expressed concerns about it butting heads with federal law, while others said it's an inappropriate attempt to pacify those calling for the broad legalization of medicinal cannabis without making significant progress on the issue.

HB195, also sponsored by Daw, would allow for terminally ill patients to try medicinal cannabis with a recommendation of their doctor. It was passed by the House earlier this month by a 40-26 vote, but has not yet had any votes in the Senate.

Daw's HB25 makes minor changes to the membership of the state-appointed Cannabinioid Product Board, which is tasked with examining existing cannabis research, and also expands the parameters of what types of research the board is asked to analyze.

Medicinal cannabis legalization advocates with Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education, or TRUCE, have said they do not support any of Daw's bills in part because of his opposition to broad cannabis access for Utah patients and because they believe the measures generally don't go far enough.

But Daw contends the bills he has pursued since 2017 are an attempt to get medicinal cannabis products into the hands of "every legitimate patient."

The Utah Patients Coalition ballot initiative campaign, which is seeking to get Utah voters to broadly legalize medicinal cannabis in the state in November, has also criticized lawmakers' approach, saying fixating on research is a delay tactic if it is not also simultaneously accompanied by greater legalization.

Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who is highly critical of the initiative's language and believes it would provide easy backdoor access to recreational use of marijuana, has opened a bill request that could potentially usurp the ballot initiative by mapping out a different path to legalization.

Jeremy Robertson, former Utah GOP secretary and state Republican party insider who has spoken with Perry, believes the measure — which has not yet been numbered and has no public text — could serve as a middle ground that doesn't go as far as the initiative and has a good chance of passing if it is formally drafted in time.

But supporters of the initiative insist strong poll numbers show Utah voters are in the driver's seat and that legislators ought to, and will, be relegated to negotiating the finer details of the initiative after it passes later this year.

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, is the sponsor of SB130, a measure that would instruct the Department of Agriculture to regulate the distribution and sale of CBD oil, and allow physicians to recommend it to their patients. Vickers has said there are too many problems in the state regarding the unreliable labeling of products claiming to be CBD when they in fact are not.

Vickers, a pharmacist, said he hopes SB130 would mitigate the selling of imitator substances while also increasing patient access to actual CBD oil, which is technically prohibited by federal law but is sold throughout Utah.

The bill was unanimously recommended favorably to the Senate by that body's Health and Human Services Committee, but has not yet undergone a vote by the full chamber.