Havasu lawmaker pushes for legalization of hemp

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (Capitol Media Services 2016 file photo by Howard Fischer)

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (Capitol Media Services 2016 file photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX -- The way Sonny Borrelli sees it, you could smoke a pound of hemp and all you’d get is smoke inhalation.

So the Republican senator from Lake Havasu City wants to amend the state’s criminal code to treat it different from marijuana, its more psychoactive version. Specifically, he wants to make its growing, sale and possession legal.

But the proposal in SB 1045 is drawing alarm from prosecutors who say that, whatever Borelli’s intent, the net effect could make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to prosecute those who are selling the much more potent version of the plant.

His legislation would amend existing law which is a laundry list of what drugs, both natural and synthetic, are illegal in Arizona, though some are legal with a prescription. They range from methamphetamines and coca leaves to more esoteric chemical compounds like 1-methyl-3-morphonino-1,1-diphenylpropane-carboxylic acid.

That list also includes marijuana. What Borelli wants is an exception for any plans with a concentration of tetrahydrocannibinol, the psychoactive element of marijuana, of not more than 0.3 percent. Borrelli sees it as a possible economic boost for Arizona farmers.

“For 400 years we were growing it in this country,’’ he said. “They made canvases out of them.’’

And Borrelli said if hemp were so dangerous it would be illegal to sell clothes, rope and other items made from the plant in Arizona. But it’s not. And even children can buy them.

“You can smoke a whole rope’’ made of hemp, he said.

“There’s almost nothing in there to get high with,’’ Borrelli continued. “You’ll die of smoke inhalation.’’

“There’s no reason why it should not be grown for industrial use, like cotton, and exported,’’ he said.

Borrelli is hardly plowing new ground.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least 16 states have legalized industrial hemp production for commercial purposes, with another 20 having laws allowing research and pilot programs. NCSL reports that some are in compliance with federal laws that already allow research; some of the laws are conditional on changes in federal laws.

But none of that relieves the anxiety that his legislation raises among prosecutors, particularly since what Borrelli is proposing would make hemp production legal in Arizona, with or without federal approval.

Deputy Pima County Attorney Kathleen Mayer said at least part of the issue is that police officers will not be able to immediately tell the difference between what is being raised for textiles and what is being raised for recreational use.

“What this does is provide a built-in defense for smugglers,’’ she said.

“ ‘No, officer, this is hemp, not marijuana,’ says the suspect.’’ Mayer imagines how the conversation goes. “ ‘It looks and smells like marijuana to me,’ ‘’ responds the person with the bales of the product.

She’s not alone in that concern.

“How does law enforcement tell the difference between a hemp load and the latest shipment from the Sinaloa Cartel,’’ said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

And it’s even more complex than that: Whatever is seized then will have to be tested to figure out if the THC content is above or below the legal limit.

Bart Graves, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said when samples are sent to his agency’s lab the only thing it tests for is whether or not there it has THC.

“We do not say what percentage of the submitted item is THC,’’ he explained.

Mayer said if Borrelli’s measure were to become law DPS would need new equipment to differentiate between marijuana and hemp. She also said the process would be more time consuming than the 10 minutes it now takes to simply determine whether a plan has any THC present at all.

“In order to prove any criminal case, I have a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it is marijuana, not hemp,’’ Mayer explained.

“So the lab results are critical,’’ she continued. “Any backlog in lab testing leads to court backlogs, which implicates a defendant’s rights and court administration.’’

Borrelli said their concerns are misplaced.

“You can tell just by the leaf itself,’’ he said. “It has a different shape to it.’’

Nor is Borrelli dissuaded by arguments that once hemp a plant is cut, dried and baled that police offices will be unable to distinguish it from marijuana.

“It’s called training,’’ he said.

Borrelli was also unapologetic for not making his legislation allowing commercial production of hemp contingent on first getting federal approval.

“Once again, we have another regulatory agency telling us what we can grow,’’ he said.

And Borrelli pointed out that the current position of the Department of Justice is that it does not pursue those who grow marijuana for medical or even recreational use in states where lawmakers or voters have made that legal. He said it would be a “contradiction’’ for the federal government to take a harsher approach over the growing of hemp.

Borrelli said this isn’t some effort to expand legalization of marijuana just months after Arizona voters defeated a bill to make recreational use legal. Nor does he profess any interest in the drug.

“It never intrigued me enough to bother because I’ve seen the downsides of it in my neighborhood when I was growing up,’’ he said. “I don’t need to complicate my life any more than it already is.’’

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