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New York Times

February 17, 1997

URLINGTON, Vt. -- Despite strong opposition from Gov. Howard Dean, most Vermonters favor legalizing hemp as an industrial crop, according to a University of Vermont study.

The study, conducted last year in response to a mandate from the Vermont Legislature, also found that a large number of Vermonters would buy products made with hemp. Hemp is a low potency, fibrous variety of Cannabis sativa, the species from which the flowers and leaves are harvested as marijuana. But it can also be used in fabrics, paints, edible and inedible oils, and for a variety of other uses.

Several states are testing the feasibility of marketing hemp, said Roger Clapp, Vermont's deputy commissioner for agricultural development. Such a test has also been mandated in Vermont.

Public opinion aside, Dean, a Democrat, is strongly opposed to legalizing hemp, asserting in a recent interview: "The real question is this: Does the public support the legalization of marijuana?

"I don't think it's in anybody's best interest to do that. It sends the wrong message to our kids. I think the principal interest of the advocates is to legalize marijuana."

State Rep. Robert Starr, the Democratic chairman of the Vermont House Agriculture Committee and a longtime advocate of hemp as an industrial product, disagreed with the governor.

"The big problem is that our government, state and federal, expects people in the 1990s to think the way they did in the 1930s," Starr said. "They've forgotten that it's up to us lawmakers to make the laws and to see that they're enforced. They think they know more than the people do."

Another hemp advocate who welcomed the findings of the study was Dennis Lane, founder and chairman of the Vermont Grassroots Party, a political party dedicated to ending the ban on growing cannabis. In 1996, three of Lane's fellow party members each won at least 5 percent of the vote in elections for statewide office, which means the Grassroots Party is considered an important one in Vermont.

"The psychoactive component is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the economic potential of cannabis," said Lane, referring to the chemical known as THC, which causes a high among marijuana smokers. "I'm pleased to see such support. The drug warriors keep using the same old tired lines, but our efforts to educate the public are getting through."

The production of industrial hemp was made illegal in the United States in the 1930s by the Uniform Narcotic Act and the Marijuana Tax Act. To this day, the only legal growing of cannabis in this country is done under special permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

As a practical matter, the important difference between marijuana and hemp is that marijuana has a THC level of 8 percent to 13 percent, whereas hemp has a THC level of less than 1 percent. Marijuana has a bushy growth while hemp is a tall, single-stemmed plant.

A concern expressed by opponents of legalization, including Dean, is that law-enforcement officers would be unable to distinguish the two growing in a field.

Another worry, Clapp said, is that "local drug dealers will commit fraud by mixing the low-potency hemp tops in with the marijuana that's already being sold on the black market here."

The hemp issue surfaced in Vermont in the spring of 1996 after four legislative committees, including Starr's, began to consider legislation that would have instructed the University of Vermont to grow test plots of hemp, an idea that died under a veto threat by the governor.

The compromise legislation, which took effect without the governor's signature, instructed the university to survey public opinion and report back by Jan. 15, 1997. That was to be followed a year later by a study on marketability and suitability of soil types, the latter based on the results of hemp tests under way in the Canadian Province of Ontario.

The University of Vermont report was based on responses to a survey in May 1996 of 402 residents, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus six percentage points.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company