WASHINGTON, Nov. 16, 2016 - Cannabis and its supporters are on the march. Voters in eight states decided last week to legalize the herb for recreational or medical purposes, pushing it even further into the mainstream of American farming.
NORML called 2016 "a monumental year for marijuana law reform," as voters in four states (California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada) approved marijuana for adult recreational use and four (Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota) sanctioned it for medical use. "The era of marijuana legalization is upon us," said NORML.
But another type of cannabis also is gaining ground, albeit with less attention, and some farmers are starting to take notice. That plant is hemp, a variety of cannabis that has been around for centuries and has been touted as a versatile, hardy crop that can be turned into food, fiber, and now, due to recent research and discoveries – medicine.
“I’m a pretty strong believer in this as a crop that’s going to be huge in 20 years,” says Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, which recently concluded its 23rd annual conference in Colorado.
Steenstra has reason to be optimistic. Two years ago, Congress approved a program in the farm bill allowing state ag departments to start pilot programs, in cooperation with universities, to study “the growth, cultivation, or marketing of industrial hemp.” Fourteen states have done so, and although some of those programs are small or in early stages, others are advancing quickly, and Steenstra estimates that 10,000 to 12,000 acres of hemp were grown nationwide this year.
The hemp industry had grown steadily throughout the early 1900s but died out in 1937 with passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which historians have attributed to worry over growing use of the drug. Industrial hemp, a variety of cannabis sativa with levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) so low that it has virtually no psychoactive effects on the user, virtually disappeared from American fields until World War II, when the industry was revived in order to supply the armed forces with rope, cloth and other products. USDA even made a film in 1942, “Hemp for Victory,” that urged farmers to grow the crop. After the war, the industry died out again.
When the subject of hemp comes up, Steenstra says, “Usually, you think rope or dope.” But, he says, “There’s so much more you can do with it,” mentioning fiber for industrial uses, seeds for nutrition, and cannabidiol, one of the many cannabinoids in the plant that are increasingly being used for medical or therapeutic purposes.
“Since the farm bill, we’ve seen a dramatic growth in our membership,” Steenstra says, enough so that HIA started a new category for farming members. He thinks hemp could be a way to get
more people excited about farming. “I think it will be good for American agriculture,” he says.
Roger Gussiaas agrees. A farmer and oilseed processor who started Healthy Oilseeds in east-central North Dakota in 2002, he’s one of five farmers who were approved to grow industrial hemp in North Dakota this year, and the only licensed processor in the state. Each farmer was limited to 15 acres, but selling each pound of hemp seed for a dollar, they made $500-$700 of net profit per acre, he said. Gussiaas takes the seed and processes it into oil, while the byproduct is turned into protein powder. About 80 percent of the product goes into the export market.
But the federal government is still sending mixed signals on hemp. USDA plans to award research grants to study industrial hemp uses, but a “statement of principles” issued in August by USDA, the Drug Enforcement Administration and FDA has some lawmakers crying foul.
A group of 19 congressmen and senators, Democrats and Republicans who don’t normally agree on much, sent a letter Oct. 27 to agency officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The letter complained that the guidance document’s definition of hemp limits its application of industrial purposes to fiber and seed, which will prevent researchers “from studying other parts of the plant which are vital to understanding the entire plant and all of its potential uses. For instance, over half of Kentucky’s hemp acres are being used to research cannabidiol (CBD), an oil, which could be prohibited under the guidance’s definition.”
The lawmakers, who include Senators Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as well as Reps. Sam Farr, D-Calif., and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., also took issue with the guidance’s prohibition on the sale of industrial hemp “for the purpose of general commercial activity.”
“The congressional definition of hemp did not narrow marketing research in any such way,” they said.
“This guidance seems to limit the sale of hemp products just to states with an industrial agricultural pilot program,” they said. “Many states allow for the sale of internationally sourced hemp within their borders, and the federal government should not prohibit the sale of similar products that are produced by an approved pilot program in the United States.”
“Hemp farming has brought a number of first-generation farmers into an agricultural industry that has struggled to attract new, young farmers,” the lawmakers said. “Additionally, American-grown hemp is already being used in a number of products, ranging from fibers in automobile panels, food, animal bedding, and soaps and salves, made right here in America.”
“Any pilot program can absolutely have commercial aspects,” the HIA’s Steenstra says.
Hemp is experiencing a resurgence, in part due to some of the same arguments made for marijuana – that it has therapeutic properties. One of cannabis’s many cannabinoids – chemical compounds in the plant – is cannabidiol, or CBD, which “could potentially be helpful in controlling seizures,” according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
Steenstra also points to other potential medical benefits. HIA’s recent conference featured a panel of professional football players, including former Denver Bronco quarterback Jake Plummer, advocating more research into CBD’s use as a pain reliever, an alternative to painkillers routinely doled out to NFL players. Plummer uses a hemp-derived oil that has, he says, helped with muscle and joint pain and the headaches he used to get on a regular basis. He has become a spokesman for a foundation, Realm of Caring, that is raising funds for more research into the potential uses of cannabinoids.
As defined in the farm bill, industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive component in marijuana. In medical and recreational marijuana, the buds – the flowers of the plant – can contain levels of THC that can top 20 percent.
Kentucky has long been the center of the country’s hemp production. In 1901, USDA botanist Lyster Dewey wrote in the department’s yearbook (which is no longer published) that three-fourths of the hemp fiber in the country was grown in the Bluegrass State.
In Kentucky this year, 181 growers took part in the state’s pilot program, growing about 2,300 acres of hemp – up from just 30 acres in 2014, said Brent Burchett, who heads up the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s hemp program. The deadline to apply to take part in next year’s program is Nov. 14. Burchett says the state’s inexpensive land and “substantially cheaper water” make it attractive for hemp growing.
“The prices for CBD range wildly,” with the amount of CBD in harvested materials often determining the price, he says. “We have heard instances as high as $1,000/pound for dried floral materials. One plant can produce up to one pound of dried floral material.” The variety of activities has Steenstra convinced that “we really need to open this up into a full commercial market.”
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