WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2015 - Advocates for industrial hemp – the non-hallucinogenic cousin of marijuana – are looking to build on the progress they made with the passage of the 2014 farm bill with new legalization bills now pending in the House and Senate.

A farm bill provision made it legal for universities and state departments of agriculture to sell industrial hemp cultivated on authorized, state-licensed pilot sites. Hemp was made illegal in the U.S. during the late 1930s.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer held a briefing for Capitol Hill staffers Monday to drum up support for legislation that would remove federal restrictions against growing hemp and open up what he says is a $620 million market in the U.S.

Importing hemp fiber is legal, and Canada and countries in Europe and Asia are feeding the U.S. domestic market’s demand for the product. That could change if industrial hemp was legalized with bipartisan bills S 134, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., or HR 525, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.

Comer said he stuck his neck out politically on industrial hemp, because he was “very passionate” about it being “the crop of the future” to “help our family farmers.”

“Kentucky was a very tobacco-dependent state, and we all know that the tobacco industry is in decline in the U.S., so we’re always looking for things to replace tobacco,” he said. Industrial hemp “is just another tool in the toolbox,” another “native crop” to grow that was once a major component of Kentucky agriculture before World War II, he said.

The state’s climate isn’t suited to vegetable production, Comer said, and industrial hemp is a “sustainable crop,” particularly compared to nutrient and pesticide intensive cash crops like corn and soybeans. It contributes less nutrient and sediment runoff and can be grown on marginal farmland, he noted. Plus, industrial hemp fiber can replace products traditionally made with wood and plastics, and maybe even the paper used for currency.

“Hemp is a win-win situation and one of the few issues that unites both ends of the political spectrum,” Comer said. “It’s a jobs bill, a sustainability bill, and a farm groups’ bill.”

Jonathan Miller, formerly Kentucky’s state treasurer and now a practicing attorney, also spoke at the briefing in favor of creating nutritional and medicinal opportunities for hemp oil, which is derived from hemp, but again has none of the hallucinogenic properties of oils produced from marijuana.

Opportunities are endless, said Miller, and regulators are already working out the legal and law enforcement kinks that are holding industrial hemp back.

For instance, Miller said, FDA agents seized hemp seeds as they entered Kentucky a few years ago, even though they were legally purchased and were to be cultivated on designated pilot plots. Comer brought three federal court cases against FDA on the matter, and was able “to get the FDA to back down,” said Miller. Two years later, Kentucky is home to over 125 hemp pilot programs covering 1,700 acres.

As for law enforcement, Miller and Comer said that the threat of cross-pollination between hemp and marijuana crops would keep “bad actors” from trying to conceal illegal marijuana plants within stands of hemp. Planting the two together could decrease the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) potency of the marijuana by half, diminishing its value tremendously. THC is the substance that gives users a psychoactive effect. In hemp, THC levels are 0.3 percent or lower. In Colorado, which has legalized recreational marijuana use, the average THC content of the drug is around 18 percent.


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