Photo by marijuana.com
Harvesting hemp stalks for fiber.
The pace of the development of industrial hemp is as feverish as two friends rolling a joint, or smoke rising from a marijuana pipe.
The difference is that you can’t get high on industrial hemp.
Ten states have already approved industrial hemp production, and 10 more, including Nebraska, have a bill in their Legislature.
By law, industrial hemp can only contain 0.3 percent THC, the compound that creates an intoxicating effect. The seeds of industrial hemp must be tested to ensure they are of the low THC variety.
Hemp has been legally grown in Canada since 1998. France is the leading producer in Europe. China is the biggest producer in the world.
Hemp was grown in the U.S. until the 1940s and contributed to the WWII effort. It was used to produce durable military clothing and other items. But not long after the war, hemp was outawed in the interests of developing nylon.
But this year, the U.S. Congress, perhaps hungry to stimulate the sluggish economy, enacted a federal law allowing test plots of industrial hemp to be grown in states that approve the plots.
Nebraska's lawmakers are rallying behind legislation that would make industrial hemp the newest Nebraska crops.
The bill – LB 1001 -- advanced 32-1 on the first of three rounds of debate on March 5. It is expected to advance to final passage.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Norm Wallman, a farmer who represents a district near Beatrice, said the bill is a great way for Nebraska to further its name as an agriculture state. He cited many benefits of hemp, including the fact that it uses less water than corn and is biodegradable.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, hemp could be used to make more than 25,000 types of products, including car parts, paper, food, construction materials, plastics, jewelry, clothing, rope and others.
"I think we have to sustain our environment - plain and simple," Wallman said. "I'm an older person, and I want to see younger people survive on the land for years and years. So this an alternative crop for people to grow and experiment with, and they can make numerous things out of it. So it's just the tip of the iceberg."
When the first vote came, Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber was the only senator to vote no, saying it is one step closer to making marijuana legal.
The only substantial argument Wallman heard against the bill was that it might be a cover-up for marijuana plants because hemp and marijuana come from the same family. However, they are different, because of the lesser amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that causes the high from marijuana.
Wallman said that people wanting to grow intoxicating marijuana would be unlikely to try to use hemp to disguise the other plants. He also said the two would cross-pollinate and lower the amount of THC in marijuana plants, making them less valuable.
However, that perception is wrong, according to Doug Anderson, an extension educator for Keith-Arthur and Perkins counties.
Anderson told the Bulletin that only the seeds of the crops are affected by cross pollination, not the existing crop, so high THC marijuana could theoretically be raised together with industrial hemp without harm to either crop.
However, the plants are cultivated and raised differently. Marijuana is pruned to increase the number of buds. Industrial hemp is raised for either the fiber in the stalks or for the oil in the seeds. Anderson said those differences in growing marijuana and hemp might be discernable from an airplane or a drone flying overhead.
Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, a big supporter of the bill, said there are several reasons to pass it. First, Congress passed a farm bill that eases regulations on states, making industrial hemp possible. She said it would be good for Nebraska because it provides a new opportunity for farmers.
Crawford also supports the bill is for medicinal purposes. She said hemp plants have been helpful in reducing seizures, and victims don't have to worry about getting high because of the low levels of THC.
Both Crawford and Wallman said another plus is it is one fewer thing to import.
"Now it's imported from China and other countries, and I think we just as well grow it here," Wallman said.
The first version of the bill allowed anyone who wants to grow hemp to obtain a license from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture after providing information about seeds and the sale of the product. The bill was later revised to only allow pilot plots under the strict supervision of the University of Nebraska or the state agriculture department. That version was adopted 35-0.
A legislative aide in Wallman’s office told the Bulletin that she expects the bill to pass soon and go to Gov. Heineman for his signature.
Wallman doesn't expect hemp growing operations to be large at first. He thinks people will start experimenting and eventually move on to larger-scale production.
He hopes it will bring jobs into the state, even if it's just a few.
He also said people are interested in starting a hemp processing plant in the state, which would likely bring in more jobs. Existing equipment can be retrofitted, his aide said.
"Ten jobs, or 20 jobs, that's something. ... I think we're stagnant as far as jobs, especially good-paying jobs," Wallman said. "Agriculture sustains this state anyway, so maybe agriculture will help more yet."
This report was first published in the March 12 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.