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Rules for Utah colleges to study hemp are too strict, group says

First Published      Last Updated Oct 23 2014 09:09 am

Research » State might require background checks, security protocol for crop’s cultivation.

Utah State University researchers are considering growing and studying hemp on campus.

And state leaders are trying to set parameters for that research — including requiring criminal background checks for employees and allowing police into college labs and grow fields at any time.

Technically, Utah universities could apply for a permit to research hemp next month. But with state agriculture leaders still tweaking the rules, that timeline could change.

"We don't expect to have industrial hemp fields around the universities anytime soon," said Scott Ericson, Utah's deputy agriculture commissioner.

Legislative members of the Administrative Rules Committee discussed the draft rules — and a critique from the libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute — at a meeting Wednesday.

The debate is a new one for Utah: The state is green when it comes to regulating research on agricultural pot grown for its fiber.

Ericson and his colleagues are hammering out the fine print related to a 2014 Utah law permitting universities to grow hemp and medical marijuana if they meet certain requirements.

State lawmakers earlier this year decided to allow the parents of children with epilepsy to use cannabis oil to control their seizures. At the same time, legislators signed off on allowing Utah colleges and universities to study marijuana and hemp.

But implementation of the research component has been tricky.

The proposed rules would take effect in mid-November at the earliest — and are still up for public comment.

The libertarian group says lawmakers should reject the "excessive" requirements proposed for colleges and universities.

"We have identified a few provisions that exceed authority granted under the law," Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack wrote in an Oct. 7 letter to lawmakers.

Under the proposed rule, Utah colleges seeking "industrial hemp" research certificates would have to detail the kinds of hemp they plan to grow, provide criminal histories and background checks for all applicants and prepare a security plan — none of which, the libertarian group says, are required by Utah's law.

The draft rules, Libertas argues, are too limiting and go beyond the authority lawmakers gave the Utah Department of Agriculture to oversee the hemp program.

Utah's proposed rules would allow police officers access to universities' growing areas "at any time."

Officers should have a warrant to access growing areas, the group says.

But Utah agriculture officials argue such steps are necessary to appease the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The requirements showed federal drug enforcement officials that Utah "was attempting to keep out bad actors" in its research programs, said Melissa Ure, a Department of Agriculture policy analyst who drafted the rules.

At the Capitol on Wednesday, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, wondered aloud how the role of marijuana research could evolve.

"Is there a possibility that this could turn into a serious agricultural industry for the state?" Dabakis asked.

So far, only USU has expressed interest in growing the plants. But the school is not weighing in on the proposed rules, said spokesman Tim Vitale.

"We're waiting to see how the details emerge," he said. "When that's settled, we'll see what part we need to play."

Vitale said USU will "certainly be involved" in studying hemp.

The second part of Utah's law — treatment of people with intractable epilepsy — is proceeding much more smoothly.

"Charlee's Law" frees adult patients or children's parents to bring in whole plant cannabidiol extracts from states where medical marijuana is legal.

"You had these sick, epileptic kids getting all the attention," said Boyack, "and rightly so."

But the research portion deserves attention, Boyack said Wednesday.

Otherwise, "there's no privacy, due process, anything like that," he said. "Higher education institutions would be surrendering those legal protections upfront."