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6:23 AM Fri, Jan. 18th

Feds open door for commercial hemp production in Arizona

In this Sept. 25, 2016 photo, Dan Dolgin, left, and Mark Justh examine seeds from hemp plants on their JD Farms in Eaton, N.Y. (Mary Esch/AP)

In this Sept. 25, 2016 photo, Dan Dolgin, left, and Mark Justh examine seeds from hemp plants on their JD Farms in Eaton, N.Y. (Mary Esch/AP)

PHOENIX — A new federal law legalizing the growing of hemp comes not a moment too soon as Arizona farmers are likely to be looking for crops that don’t need as much water.

The 2018 Farm Bill approved by Congress opens the door wide to commercial hemp production. Not only does it spell out that hemp is legally different than marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law, but it allows for the interstate sale and processing of the plant and any products that can be made from it.

As it turns out, Arizona already is on the road to legalizing hemp production, possibly as early as this coming August.

A bill signed last year by Gov. Doug Ducey directed the state Department of Agriculture to craft rules to allow farmers here to start growing the non-psychoactive form of marijuana. That was allowed after a 2014 federal law gave states some permission to license hemp growers for “research purposes.’’

Those rules are expected to be in place by August.

But Brian McGrew, the agency’s industrial hemp program manager, said what Congress just approved is a game-changer for Arizona farmers looking for alternative crops.

“It completely deregulates and takes it off the Schedule 1 narcotics list,’’ he said, where marijuana and its cousins have been listed for years. “And then it becomes an agricultural commodity that can go from state to state without the restrictions that were there before.’’

That, McGrew said, is important.

“Someone will be able to grow industrial hemp here in Arizona and then send that harvested hemp to, say, a processing facility for fiber or whatever it might be into a different state,’’ he said. And McGrew said there is an increasing demand for hemp for everything from fibers for clothing to oils for soap.

Still, he said, there have to be rules.

That’s because hemp is defined as a cannabis plant but with a concentration of tetrahydrocannibinol, the psychoactive element of marijuana, that is less than than 0.3 percent.

Only thing is, visually, what’s grown as hemp and what’s grown as marijuana looks pretty much the same.

“It’s still a product of the cannabis plant and technically the same plant as marijuana,’’ he said.

That, then, requires monitoring -- and testing -- by the state Department of Agriculture to ensure that farmers who decide to grow hemp are not dabbling in something that remains a violation of federal law and illegal in Arizona except for medical marijuana patients. Those are the rules, McGrew said, that are now being developed.

He said this isn’t just the department acting in a vacuum. McGrew said the agency has been working with stakeholders - farmers, processors and those who want to make commercial products out of the hemp - to come up with something everyone can live with and complies with the law.