Pending industrial hemp legislation could go to pot

By Brad Bowman

Thursday, March 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Two bills in state legislation for the legalization of industrial hemp could offer a transition crop for farmers in Nelson County.  Central Kentucky was the largest producer of hemp during World War II for rope production, but state officials say it isn’t legislation but law enforcement that will decide hemp’s future in the state or Nelson County.

Hemp has been looked at as alternative energy source in the past, according to Nelson County Extension Agent, Ron Bowman.

“If it was feasible at all, we would have to be closer to the actual power plants,” Bowman said. “It all depends on the price of the product, what would it cost to ship it and whether our farmers can actually make money from it.”

Industrial hemp is a non-psychoactive variety of the Cannabis sativa plant. Given its low THC content, it would not be attractive as a recreational drug like marijuana, but the stigma has helped stop its legalization.

Hemp studies have been initiated in the past, but the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration denied permits to the Dean of University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture Scott Smith.

“There are advocates on both sides of the issue,” Smith said. “The ultimate question is whether hemp is an economic solution for farmers.”

There isn’t sufficient research on industrial hemp to discern whether it is economically viable for farmers, according to Smith. Research exists in Canada and Europe for production, but not the market research needed in the U.S., according to Smith. When the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University were encouraged to research hemp production, Smith was denied by the DEA.

“We have studies on switch back grass and miscanthus grass which could be just as productive as hemp for an energy source, but we just don’t know enough about it,” Smith said.

Hemp could be the transition crop for local Nelson County tobacco farmers if research could support the crop as an economical and marketable product.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions out there about whether it is right for our farmers. If it can be used in all the different ways people claim that it can, farmers are interested,” State Sen. Jimmy Higdon said. “We need the universities to research it and show that it can work, but we need law enforcement on board to make this happen.”

The bills would require farmers to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture and pass a criminal history check by local sheriffs. Sheriffs would do random test inspections of hemp fields at a fee of $5 per acre with a minimum $150 fee. The money would be divided between the sheriff and agriculture departments.

The transition crop couldn’t come soon enough for farming families looking for an alternative to tobacco, according to State Rep., David Floyd.

“It’s a fact that we need to move tobacco farmers toward another crop,” Floyd said. “A lot has been taken away from tobacco farmers. Years ago, tobacco fields put their children through school. “

Industrial hemp is considered a controlled substance by the DEA. Bound by international treaty laws, the DEA can only legally grant one entity the permit to research cannabis in any form, according to DEA Public Relations Officer Barbara Carreno in Washington D.C. The University of Mississippi currently possesses the permit.

“Our main concern is security. We have security requirements that must be met in regards to researching controlled substances,” Carreno said. “The university is required by law to regularly publish reports for compliance with security and research.”

The permit is just one part of the process for legal research by any entity. The National Institute on Drug Abuse oversees the approval process, which requires the reports from an approved research group. The DEA doesn’t approve or disapprove research, Carreno said.

States that have legalized medicinal marijuana are operating in violation of federal law. North Dakota has sued the DEA for the right to grow industrial hemp, Carreno said. The lack of legal research confuses the issue of industrial hemp and street marijuana sought after by drug users.

“Hemp is long and spindle-like,” Smith said. “There is an argument that cross pollination would render an illegal plant grown in the same field with less than desirable levels of THC, but we don’t have the research to support that.”

The profitability of industrial hemp and the legal hurdles to produce the crop isn’t lost on Kentucky Agricultural Commissioner James Comer.

“The U.S. is the only country that doesn’t grow industrial hemp. North Dakota is suing the DEA because they can see the money being made in Canada,” Comer said. “We will continue to educate people statewide to address the misinformation and the potential it has for our agricultural economy.”

It is a cheaper crop for farmers to put out than crops such as corn grown for ethanol and it is greener. Industrial hemp doesn’t require fertilizer, Comer said.

The crop could produce a significant contribution to the agriculture economy. It wouldn’t be just an opportunity for farmers but the state, according to Comer.

“This could create manufacturing jobs. We have companies that would come here for manufacturing greener products to replace plastic for the automotive industry such as car dashes,” Comer said.

The commissioner maintains an optimistic stance on the legality issues surrounding industrial hemp and its classification. U.S. Representative for Texas’s 14th congressional district, Ron Paul’s introduction of H.R. 1831 would take industrial hemp out of the jurisdiction of the DEA by declassifying it as a controlled substance, according to Comer.

“This is truly a bipartisan issue,” Comer said. “Everyone from the far right to the far left is on board to make this happen. We have to look ahead and we have everything we need without asking for money or raising taxes.”

BRAD BOWMAN can be reached at [email protected]

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