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VOL. 37 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 04, 2013

An attempt to legalize hemp farming in Tennessee is getting pushback, despite its economic potential

By John McBryde

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In Tennessee, the idea of hemp is hot. For at least a couple of legislators and an equal number of grassroots advocates in the state, hemp could be the second coming of corn in terms of its potential as a crop with a diversity of uses.

Those who would stand to profit from industrial hemp – the state’s farmers and producers – are generally taking a wait-and-see approach or say they know very little about it.

And to law enforcement officials, hemp’s status as a plant that’s illegal to grow in the United States should remain today just as it was when the Controlled Substances Act became law more than 40 years ago.

“I think that’s safe to say, that we’re going to oppose anything that would legalize a product that’s criminalized under federal law,” says William Benson, assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Drug Division.

“Hemp is considered cannabis, and that’s illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, so we’re not in support of it.”

Therein lies the crux of the matter of what is known as industrial hemp, a plant that some estimates show can be used for more than 25,000 products. It has been used in Germany to make interior components for automobiles, as well as construction and insulation materials. Hemp clothing is not uncommon, and nutritionists tout the benefits of its seeds and oils.

Despite its productive value, however, hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa, the same plant species as marijuana.

The plants are similar in appearance and both contain THC, the chemical that provides the “high” in marijuana. But the amount in each is considerably different: less than 1 percent in hemp, and at least 10 percent and often much higher in marijuana.

“People have asked me, why hemp was ever made illegal in the first place?” says Republican state Sen. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains, who is drafting a bill for next year’s legislative session to make hemp a legal product to grow in Tennessee.

“You know, hemp and marijuana might be cousins, but cornbread and moonshine are cousins.”

Last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to allow that state’s farmers the right to grow hemp, but only if the federal government lifts its ban.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vote Hemp advocate Tom Murphy, predicted the economic impact of growing the crop in California would be “$1 billion within five years.’’

The Good and Bad

Hemp has a long history, with estimates showing it has been cultivated for more than 12,000 years. First signs of its use were in China, where it was processed to make clothes, shoes, rope and an early form of paper.

Its history in North America dates to the 1600s, and it was later grown on plantations during the mid-1800s. It was used by the U.S. for uniforms, canvas and rope during World War II.

A short 1942 government-produced film, “Hemp for Victory,” promoted the plant as a necessity for winning the war.

Hemp became lumped in with marijuana through the enactment of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which was passed so taxes could be collected on anyone working commercially in cannabis.

Some point to William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, as an instigator in giving the plant its black eye.

“Of course, he used lots of paper, and there are two places to get paper: pine trees and hemp,” Niceley explains. “He invested heavily in pine forests and wanted to eliminate the competition.

“So by demonizing marijuana, he threw out the hemp, too, like throwing out the baby with the bath water.”

The tax act from 1937 was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but in 1970 the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act that stands today.

Recently, however, nearly a dozen states passed legislation to make it legal to grow industrial hemp.

After Kentucky made the move earlier this year, Niceley and Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden decided to begin drafting a similar bill for Tennessee. Both are farmers.

“After researching it, I couldn’t find a reason why farmers here can’t raise it when it’s being raised all over the world,” Niceley says. “I found it as just another discrimination against American farmers.”

Grassroots Efforts

Mike Hendley, a farmer in Robertson County whose family has been raising tobacco “as far back as I know about,” says he’d still have much to learn about hemp but can see its potential.

“I don’t know much about it, but I think it would be all right,” says Hendley, who has 57 acres of tobacco that is mostly sold to R.J. Reynolds. “I don’t imagine it would take the place of ‘baccer, of course, but I think it would be another avenue.”

Farmers in Tennessee are generally reluctant to talk about hemp since it’s still an illegal crop, Niceley says.

That’s also apparent at places like the state’s Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Farm Bureau, where officials declined to comment on the prospects for hemp.

The legislators are getting a little support from grassroots organizers, including Colleen Suavé of Murfreesboro. She launched the Tennessee Hemp Organization website and Facebook page in August as a way to educate the public. The Facebook page has frequent posts about uses for hemp, news on legislative matters and other related updates.

“I would like to see industrial hemp become a sustainable mainstay for Tennessee,” she explains. “It has the potential to provide growth from farming to manufacturing, and stimulate a variety of businesses related to the production of hemp goods.”

Even if hemp becomes legal to grow in Tennessee, farmers could still face obstacles and logistical concerns en route to any money being made. They may be faced with a bureaucratic entanglement that may not exist for, say, soybean growers.

“I think the biggest hurdles would be what sort of oversight and red tape growers would have to deal with,” says Nate Phillips, assistant professor in the School of Agribusiness and Agriscience at Middle Tennessee State University.

“And what sort of infrastructure is currently in place and what sort would have to be in place in order to process it and get it to where it needs to be processed?

“With it being a new crop and somewhat of a controversial crop, there is going to be the oversight. Also there are the simple things like (the fact) there aren’t pesticides or herbicides registered for it, or at least that I know of. That might take some time to get worked out and would leave growers at a disadvantage initially.”

And of course, there will be the resistance from the TBI and other law enforcement agencies. Just recently in Kentucky, for instance, the state’s attorney general issued an opinion that hemp is still illegal there even though legislators voted to make it legal. The attorney general’s opinion also came in spite of the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision in August to honor state laws regarding the production of cannabis.

“I think law enforcement across the country is very concerned with that policy,” the TBI’s Benson says of the DOJ’s decision.

“(Hemp and marijuana) are both cannabis, and essentially they’re hard if not impossible to distinguish by the eye. Hemp, by definition, has a lower THC level, but they both contain it. From a law enforcement perspective, it could be extremely confusing to deal with that.”

Niceley insists the battle for hemp is one worth fighting.

“The U.S. imports about half a billion dollars’ worth of hemp every year, mainly from Canada and China,” he says. “That’s something our farmers should have a shot at raising.”

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