SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food plans to pursue an administrative rule change that would widen the scope of who is allowed to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.
The Agricultural Advisory Board, a government-appointed body of various industry leaders, recommended in favor of such a rule change in a meeting with the department this week.
"We initially read the language of both (federal law) and the state legislation to mean that universities of higher learning would be the only people allowed to grow," said Melissa Ure, senior policy analyst for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "(But) we've seen a great deal of interest from private individuals to grow industrial hemp."
If enacted, the administrative rule change would open up hemp growing and research for various farmers as well as a significant number of hobbyists who want to learn more about the plant's properties, according to Ure.
She cautioned that the debate over marijuana is "completely separate" from the potential rule change.
"Industrial hemp is not marijuana," she said. "This is not a step toward legalization of marijuana in any way."
Hemp and marijuana are related plants and "on the surface you can't tell the difference between them" in appearance, Ure explained, but their internal makeup is considerably different.
Specifically, hemp has dramatically lower levels of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana critical to the plant's recreational use, Ure said. She noted that some recreational marijuana in Colorado has THC levels of up to 28 percent.
However, under the federal Farm Bill passed in 2014, any hemp found to have THC levels above 0.3 percent must be destroyed, Ure said.
"Technically, anything above that is marijuana" in the eyes of the law, Ure said, adding that the 0.3 percent threshold is extremely cautious.
Hemp growers are also not allowed to sell it and must detail how they will dispose of it following the completion of research, she said.
There are still steps remaining to enact the rule change. Ure's department must conduct a fiscal analysis, after which the Utah Division of Administrative Rules will need to publish the proposed change for a 30-day public comment period.
That period could start as soon as October, Ure predicted. Those who submit comments via email could also request a public meeting, she said.
The Utah Legislature passed a bill earlier this year allowing for the research of marijuana's potential medical use, despite prohibitions of such research in federal law. The bill also created a board that would be responsible for reviewing recommendations about medical marijuana policies.
Two attempts to legalize medical marijuana failed in the Legislature in 2016. No bills directly seeking its legalization were introduced this year.