Maryland’s budding hemp industry is growing despite concerns from some Baltimore County residents about living near a crop that was outlawed for several decades.
Hemp is a strain of cannabis that looks and smells much like the plant that’s smoked recreationally and medicinally. But hemp contains only a very small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which causes the psychoactive effects associated with cannabis.
Instead, hemp mostly contains cannabidiol oil, or CBD, which is used in pills, creams and consumable products. CBD’s popularity is growing because scientists discovered it stimulates a reaction in the body that reduces pain and inflammation, said Darren O’Brien, a hemp farmer in Baltimore County.
“People who are growing hemp are not hippies,” O’Brien said. "It’s helping tens of thousands of people.”
O’Brien manages the Hemp Hills Farm and Family Care CBD shop, but he stressed hemp isn’t just about CBD. The plant has been “a major crop” in Canada and Europe for decades, he said, because its fibers can be used to produce clothing, shoes or paper, among other things.
Maryland has seen the industry blossom since starting a pilot program in 2018. There are nearly 100 farms statewide — a roughly 50% increase this past year. And new state regulations for the industry will take effect Nov. 1.
But as more farmers view the crop as a gateway to the lucrative CBD market, some neighbors are fuming. And at least one county government — Baltimore County — is considering restrictions on the crop.
“The people that have contacted me have said that they’ve had problems with some of their children who have respiratory issues [that] are made more complicated by hemp. People who have asthma find that their conditions are more agitated from the hemp,” said Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach, who has sponsored a bill to limit hemp farms.
The council held a hearing Tuesday on Kach’s proposed legislation, and Kach also held a virtual meeting Thursday for both sides to discuss the issue. The council is scheduled to vote on the bill Monday night, though Kach has said he may seek to postpone a vote.
One of Baltimore County’s five hemp farms is located off Broadway Road, just north of Stevenson, and it’s surrounded by suburban homes. Vince Piccinini, the farmer whose name is listed on the state registration for the Broadway Road hemp farm, could not be reached for comment.
While the land has long been used for farming, Kach aide Ryan Fried said a barrage of complaints followed Piccinini’s decision to grow hemp there.
Like any other hemp farm, its fields release an odor from late summer until early November when the plant is harvested. Residents have voiced health concerns over the stench.
Kach’s bill would prohibit hemp farms within 2,000 feet of a residential property. The Cockeysville Republican’s proposal would also require harvesting facilities to be set back at least 500 feet from the farm’s property line and hemp farms would be prohibited from operating within 2 miles of another hemp farm. The county council is expected to vote on the bill this week and, if approved, it would take effect Oct. 19.
Residents from the Sparks and Lutherville-Timonium communities testified in support of the proposal last week. They said approximately 32 homes are within 1,000 feet of the Piccinini farm, which is listed in the state as GPS Nurseries.
“This is frightening," Lutherville resident Michele Pearlman said. “Council, you have our health in your hands. Please protect us by passing this bill.”
Another resident, Richard Sciacca, reiterated that neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor Maryland allows CBD to be added to edible products, even though it’s happening. Dr. Jefferson Lee of Lutherville said the FDA says on its website that pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers shouldn’t be exposed to cannabis or cannabis-derived products.
“It is incredibly disturbing, the idea of my young children becoming guinea pigs for future research on long-term health hazards from cannabis exposure at home," Lee said.
But Kevin Atticks of the Maryland Hemp Coalition said there are no studies showing negative health effects from inhaling hemp.
"You may not like the smell, but it’s not dangerous,” Atticks said.
Right now, the hemp dispute appears to be limited to Baltimore County. But agriculture advocates are worried about the county council bill’s impact on farmers.
“Our concern is that this legislation is in direct conflict with the state’s Right to Farm Law,” said Colby Ferguson with the Maryland Farm Bureau.
The hemp industry’s fiscal impact is minimal so far due to its infancy in Maryland, but there are several companies opening in the state to generate jobs that process hemp. Although the Agriculture Department isn’t tracking sales data for the industry, the Maryland Hemp Coalition plans to study it this fall when farmers harvest the plant.
According to New Frontier Data, a Washington D.C.-based analytics company focused on the cannabis industry, farmers can make anywhere from $2,500 to $75,000 per acre cultivating hemp for CBD, depending on the state and other circumstances.
Maryland reported nearly 1,400 acres of hemp in 2019, according to Ferguson. By comparison, Virginia has about 2,200 acres of hemp, West Virginia has nearly 650 acres and Delaware has less than 100 acres. Pennsylvania has the largest production nearby with more than 4,400 acres, and Ferguson said the “overwhelming majority” of these acres are for the CBD market.
Industrial hemp is classified as an agricultural crop at the state and federal level. The Maryland Department of Agriculture already has regulations limiting where hemp can be grown — at least 1,000 feet from a school or a park. Ferguson said Kach’s legislation sets a “bad precedent” that a small group of homeowners can dictate what a farmer can grow and where they can grow it.
Farmers are already required to obtain a state permit and inspection to grow hemp, but Ferguson said Kach’s bill would also require a special exception and public hearing in the county. Additionally, Ferguson said the 500-foot setback could harm new farmers who can’t afford to buy a large farm.
“This bill would virtually eliminate growing of hemp on small farms,” Ferguson said.
Earlier this year, a group of state lawmakers from Baltimore Countyattempted to tighten statewide restrictions. Sen. Shelly Hettleman, Del. Jon Cardin and Del. Dana Stein, all Democrats, proposed bills in the General Assemblyto prohibit hemp farming near residences, but the bills did not generate enough support from legislators elsewhere.
Hettleman supports hemp expansion, but she said the health concerns separate it from basic right-to-farm laws. She’s surprised Baltimore County is the only place reporting concerns, but she acknowledged the Lutherville area has become more suburban, and residents didn’t expect hemp would affect their quality of life.
“I certainly understand a farmer’s right to grow what they want to grow on their property in the parameters of the law, but I also am concerned about the neighbors and my constituents' quality of life,” Hettleman said.
The industry “has a huge, bright future,” Fraser-Hidalgo said, but he acknowledges the “legitimate concerns on both sides.”
He voiced confidence in the county’s ability to find a compromise to resolve the situation.
“They need to tread very carefully," Fraser-Hidalgo said. “Those farms have been around longer than those residential areas have been around, so I think it is concerning if you’re going to tell farmers what they can and cannot grow."
O’Brien, with Hemp Hills Farm, said he’s worried Baltimore County could lose out on taxes and revenue from hemp if restrictions are enacted.
“It would devastate [hemp farming],” O’Brien said. “I would be out of business and so would other people.”
Kach said he might delay a vote on the proposal to give both sides of the debate more time to work on the issue. Either way, O’Brien is certain the science and the industry of hemp will expand as the plant’s uses become more widespread.