Initiative measure seeks voter approval to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp

PHOENIX -- Arizonans may get a chance to decide if they want to let farmers here grow an industrial -- and not psychoactive -- version of marijuana.

In essence, the measure would empower the state Department of Agriculture to license people to grow hemp. This essentially is marijuana but with a concentration of THC, the psychoactive element, that is no greater than three-tenths of one percent.

The organization, Hemp Our World, needs 150,642 valid signatures on petitions by July 7, 2016 to put it on the general election ballot that year.

Christian Carrasco, who is chairing the ballot effort, said other states like Kentucky and Colorado already have adopted similar law. Carrasco said the goal will be to educate Arizona voters about the benefits of hemp -- and that this has nothing to do with the medical or recreational use of marijuana.

But it may not be necessary for proponents to go through all that.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he expects the Legislature to take up the issue this coming session. And Borrelli, who could not convince colleagues to approve the plan earlier this year, thinks it may have better results this time.

At least part of the reason is that the Arizona Farm Bureau just last month adopted a new policy supporting development, production and distribution of industrial hemp.

Farm Bureau spokeswoman Julie Murphree said removing the legal restrictions could prove a major benefit for Arizona farmers. She said that could start with the University of Arizona doing research to develop a strain that would do well here that would provide farmers with a new cash crop.

"It's one thing our veteran, generational Arizona farmers do so well: grow worthwhile crops in our desert climate,' she said.

But the measure already could be picking up opposition. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said he cannot support something that has not been approved by Congress.

Montgomery noted that Congress earlier this year did vote to allow the growing of hemp -- but only for research purposes.

"To the extent that the initiative would permit commercial growth and use outside of a research context, it would seem to be in violation of federal law,' he said.

Montgomery acknowledged that the federal government has shown little interest in actually enforcing existing laws not only on hemp but also on marijuana. In fact Congress actually tucked a provision into the just-approved $1.1 trillion federal budget to block the U.S. Department of Justice from spending money to prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or patients as long as they live within state laws.

But Montgomery said that changes nothing.

"Congressional action may reflect a policy preference but it did not amend the (federal) Controlled Substances Act,' he said, where possession of marijuana in all forms, including hemp, remains a felony unless specifically authorized. "So whether the federal government wants to enforce restrictions on hemp growing or not, any initiative that presumes to permit cultivation beyond what federal law permits would still be in violation of and conflict with federal law.'

Carrasco said the big hurdle here could be convincing those who have to vote on the issue that its scope is limited.

"This is not about marijuana,' said Carrasco. "You can't smoke hemp.'

"It's all about education,' Borrelli agreed. And what that also means, he said, is spurning help from some others.

"The pro-marijuana people need to stay home because they're going to confuse the issue,' he said. "That's what screwed up the issue,' Borrelli continued, preventing him from getting the needed votes on this year's legislation.

Borrelli said the new Farm Bureau policy will help. But he said legislators need to understand the issue better.

"Our Founding Fathers grew this stuff,' he said.

"That's what you make ropes and canvases out of,' Borelli said. "That's where the word 'cannabis' came from.'

With or without this measure, there is a separate ballot effort underway to get votes to adopt a Colorado-style law which would legalize marijuana in Arizona by adults for recreational purposes, regulating and taxing it like alcohol. It is being prepared by the Marijuana Policy Project, the group behind the successful 2010 Medical Marijuana Act.

Petitions for that effort, though, have not yet been filed.

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