Produced in some 30 countries, industrial hemp is estimated to be a $500 million market in the United States. Those touting the crop often point to the myriad products it can be used for: carpets, particle board, paper, food, drinks, fabrics, on and on.
However, until lawmakers shoehorned a provision into the last farm bill, industrial hemp has been illegal – under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, enforced by the DEA -- to grow in the United States for decades. Despite the 2014 farm bill’s “Legitimacy of industrial hemp research” title, which allows states to grow hemp under strict circumstances, the agency still views hemp the same as many street drugs. Regardless, around 30 states are now allowing, or moving to allow, commercial and/or research cultivation of hemp.
In Mid-October, the National Ag Law Center – located at the University of Arkansas -- held a webinar on industrial hemp. Director Harrison Pittman spoke with Delta Farm Press shortly after. Among his comments:
How are the Southern states typically approaching this?
“Kentucky and Tennessee are moving ahead with industrial hemp. Georgia has a state bill proposed as have both Carolinas. As of a couple of days ago, actually, North Carolina was waiting for their governor to sign (a bill).
“Kentucky is the state that’s really at the forefront of activity. At both the state and federal levels they’ve had political support to do a pretty expansive industrial hemp law. They’ve gone as far as any state in the country as far as getting a legal framework in place.”
Is the thinking there that hemp could partially fill the hole left by tobacco?
“I think that was part of the equation. Kentucky has a history of hemp production. When tobacco cratered, the policy arguments and proponents of industrial hemp had additional strength.”
If Kentucky is the bell-cow how did they allay the fears of the DEA and regulators? Or have they?
“Oh, no, anyone moving in the hemp direction is going to have significant interaction with the DEA.
“Kentucky, at one point, filed a lawsuit against the federal government. When they wanted to plant their first crop, they were importing seed from Italy. They hadn’t gone through the DEA import requirements – basically permits that were needed. Well, that seed shipment was embargoed and not allowed into the country.
“Since then, the state and the DEA have worked together to resolve the situation. There are letters, for example, from Sen. Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul strongly encouraging the DEA to not be in the way of hemp production. They’ve also been very involved in FY 2015 appropriations language that would prohibit the use of funds to prosecute anything related to the 2014 farm bill provision (that opened the door to industrial hemp).”
Where are the big court battles going to come from regarding industrial hemp?
“Remember, it’s technically not illegal to produce industrial hemp. And that’s a plant with a low THC content, non-recreational use, non-psychotropic impact that can be used for industrial products. There are a wide variety of products that can be made with hemp.
“So, it’s not technically illegal to plant hemp – even without the new farm bill language. However, you must have a permit from DEA to plant. And the agency has been loath to grant those.
“The DEA has worked with states – Indiana is a good example – in terms of implementing the research component under the farm bill. So, there is some movement there.
“Long-term, though, the broader tension will mean either the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015, or something similar, will be enacted that would, through an act of Congress, amend the Controlled Substances Act by statute. That would define industrial hemp in a way that would remove it from the DEA interpretation of marijuana as a Schedule One Narcotic, which includes all varieties of cannabis sativa. That’s where the real fight will be.
“I haven’t got a sense, honestly, about what the DEA really thinks about all this. Are they being cooperative? Uncooperative? I really don’t know.”
How is Arkansas approaching this?
“In the Arkansas state legislature requested that research be done. There’s actually an economic study available that was done in the early 2000s. Like other studies on this, the conclusions are mixed.
“A key question that people want answered is: is there profit to be had with hemp? There isn’t much data to go on. Stepping back from the legal part of it, consider the structure. It’s one thing to plant it, grow it and harvest it. After that, though, there has to be a spot where you can take it. You have to have a price, a contract, someone to buy it, to process it. That marketplace just isn’t in place.
“In general, I think we’re a long ways off from hemp being a major industry that really takes off. Even for the states that have jumped forward, hemp is still in its infancy.
“The range of estimates for industrial hemp planted around the world typically land around 300,000 acres. Some studies show less than that. Well, for a Mid-South state, that kind of acreage isn’t terribly impressive. We eclipse that in a variety of commodities.”
Mississippi and Louisiana?
“Mississippi doesn’t currently have a hemp law although they do have a proposal in the legislature. They had another proposal in 2014.
“Louisiana doesn’t have a law. I believe they’re one of two states that have never proposed anything regarding industrial hemp.”
An obvious question is if a state votes in recreational use of marijuana would that automatically bring along the legalization of growing industrial hemp?
“Not necessarily. It’s tricky. The DEA interprets the definition of ‘marijuana’ to include all varieties of cannabis sativa. That includes recreational, industrial hemp and everything else.
“Now, you have Colorado and northwest states passing recreational use marijuana laws. The obvious issue that came up was what will the federal government’s response be? Will they enforce federal drug laws over the state laws?
“Currently, the federal government isn’t shutting them down. There are folks running for President right now that are very open about their intention, if elected, to shut those states down. (New Jersey Governor) Chris Christie has said ‘they may as well make their money now. When I’m President I’ll shut them down on Day One.’
“I’ll repeat: anyone growing industrial hemp without a DEA permit is playing with fire.”
If you do secure a permit and grow hemp do you have to turn over GPS coordinates of fields?
“Some states do require that. Several states want the address, the property description and GPS coordinates. Some even require a minimum acreage be planted. That prevents the issue of ‘small plots’ coming up.
“The DEA permits aren’t easy for producers. A permit may require fencing around the hemp field. It may require concertina wire and video camera coverage. It’s very involved.
“I spoke with someone in Indiana who said the permitting process is extremely time intensive. They said the DEA goes out of its way to ensure it’s hemp being grown. The agency still has in its mind: ‘This is marijuana.’ And they treat it that way.”