An employee of Hemp, Inc. in South Carolina trims plants in a commercial hemp field. Though the plants appear similar to marijuana, hemp cannot get a person high, and it has about 25,000 potential industrial uses. Photo via Hemp, Inc.

published on July 16, 2018 - 11:35 AM
Written by David Castellon

For decades, “hemp” has been one of the bad four-letter words among many farmers and government officials because it’s a not-so-distant cousin to marijuana.

But the plant has its advocates, who note that you can’t smoke it and get high, and it has a vastly longer list of possible uses from being used to make food items to being compressed to make skateboards and other hard items to being converted into biofuel.

Those advocates got extremely excited recently when the U.S. Senate passed its version of a federal Farm Bill with a provision that would fully legalize the growing of hemp in the U.S.

Not that hemp is illegal to grow now. It’s just not fully legal, as the 2014 Farm Bill included a provision allowing the growing of hemp only if each grower is doing so for research — which can be scientific or market research — affiliated with a university or other research institution.

If the hemp provision in the Senate’s bill makes the final cut when members of the Senate and House meet in the coming weeks to merge elements of their respective farm bills, and if the president signs it, the requirement to grow hemp for research no longer would apply.

“It will allow you to grow hemp the same way you grow corn or rye or wheat or sweet potatoes or any other crops,” said Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp, Inc., which operates the largest hemp-manufacturing plant in the world in Spring Hope, North Carolina.

He said the change in the Farm Bill “would open the door to make America the No. 1 hemp-producing country in the world.”

The Central Valley has the potential to be a cornerstone of this new industry, said Michael Green, former president of the Fresno Cannabis Association — a long-time advocate for the legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana, as well as for hemp cultivation.

“That’s one of the nice things about hemp. It’s ideally suited for the Central Valley. It grows well in hot weather, it can grow without a lot of water, it can handle saline soils and some other soil conditions that other types of plants can’t,” which makes it ideal for farms suffering from water shortages, including those on the west side of Fresno County, as well as lands with marginal soil, said Green, who now runs his own business advising entrepreneurs on how to start medicinal and recreational cannabis businesses in California.

“It can actually help remediate some sub-standard soil conditions because it actually encourages uptake of minerals and salts that make those [soils] sub prime.

“I understand the drama about cannabis [cultivation here], but when we’re talking about hemp farming it’s got to be in Fresno County and Madera and Tulare and Kings counties,” Green said.

While he couldn’t speak about the industry’s potential in the Valley, Perlowin, who started the first publicly-traded — or “pot stock” — company, Medical Marijuana, Inc., 11 years ago and later sold it, said he sees hemp’s enormous potential in the U.S., and he’s not alone.

He said he started Hemp, Inc., which also is publicly traded, because he saw hemp as having greater potential than marijuana, as “hemp has way greater potential income-wise and business-wise. As an example, hemp plastics have more potential to make money than medical marijuana and recreational marijuana put together.

“Farmers are drooling to get into the hemp business, and the only ones who are reticent are the ones who don’t know how much money you can make. You can make more money on hemp than any other product grown in the United States, including marijuana.”

On land owned by Hemp, Inc. and other farmers in eight states — which can sell the hemp they produce under their research agreements — the company plans to grow more than 25,000 acres of hemp this year, more than 45 times the amount available to the company last year and an amount greater than all the other hemp grown in the U.S., Perlowin said.

And the potential isn’t just in growing hemp, as hemp experts note that the plant has about 25,000 uses, so all kinds of manufacturing businesses could spring up if wider cultivation occurs.

For example, Green said, “In Europe, they use it for insulation in car door panels, because it’s strong and doesn’t decay,” and if Faraday Future succeeds with its plans to build its first electric car plant in Hanford, a business making similar hemp products for those cars could be started here.

“The range of products is so broad and wide, it probably covers the entire spectrum of industry,” Perlowin said.

And there also is potential for industries making tools, vehicles, pesticides and other goods for hemp farming, which used to occur in the U.S. decades ago, but farmers largely would have to learn hemp farming anew if the door for legalization were to swing wide open.

Hemp was a legal crop in the U.S. until the post-World War II era, but the industry suffered in part because of the plant’s close kinship and similar look to marijuana.

So much so, that in 1970 the federal government grouped it with all the other cannabis varieties, designating them illegal, Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, despite hemp having less than .3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in marijuana that gets people high. But the amount in hemp isn’t enough to get anyone high, Green noted.

Still, it’s believed that competitors to hemp-based textiles, particularly among the post-WWII-era makers of synthetic fabrics, found demonizing hemp by playing up its connection to cannabis to the public and lawmakers as an easy way to eliminate some of its completion, said Green, noting that it worked.

Add to that, many in law enforcement were willing to speak against hemp, despite it not having psychoactive qualities, Green said.

“And as far as law enforcement, in particular, their typical objection is that they don’t want to see a bunch of hemp fields out there, because they can’t tell the difference easily — from the air, anyway.”

Back before and soon after the war, Hemp largely was used to make into ship sails, ropes and a variety of textiles.

While hemp was illegal to grow here, other counties have continued using the plant and developed thousands of new uses for it. Perlowin said his own company makes goods that include hemp and kenaf — another cannabis cousin — ground into a powder and used to seal fissures along the paths of oil well drill holes — a natural alternative to chemical-based products.

Another division of Hemp, Inc. extracts oil from hemp seeds to produce cannabidiol — or “CBD” — a compound that also can be extracted from marijuana that reportedly relieves inflammation, pain, anxiety, psychosis, seizures, spasms and other conditions without generating feelings of lethargy or unease or making people feel “stoned.”

The House Farm Bill gave no mention of hemp, but experts following the hemp industry note that at least nothing was included by the House members to water down or eliminate the rules allowing hemp farming under research partnerships from the 2014 bill.

As for the hemp provision in the Senate Farm Bill, that’s being largely credited to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as a way to replace agricultural jobs in tobacco, which is finding decreasing favor among the American public and facing growing competition by electronic cigarettes.

The Senate bill passed easily, while passage of the house bill was more hard-fought, and it’s not clear if the Senate revision to the federal hemp regulations might be a point of contention in both houses developing and passing the final Farm Bill, nor is it clear if the president might weigh in for or against it.

And even if all that happens, the Senate provisions as they stand now give states the right to decide individually if they want to allow unobstructed hemp growing in their jurisdictions, and it’s not clear whether farmers in California might push back on allowing hemp farms here.

Officials for the farm bureaus in Fresno, Tulare and Madera counties didn’t respond to interview requests, and Dusty Ference, executive director of the Kings County Farm Bureau, said his organization hadn’t decided whether to support hemp growing in the Valley.

“We don’t have any issues with it if it does become legal,” but before showing any support for hemp or challenging it, Ference said his farm bureau is waiting for the California Department of Food and Agriculture to respond to a request to investigate whether hemp could be viable here and what its effects could be on other crops here.

“We don’t know if it needs a lot of water, pesticide applications, and if it may affect other crops.”

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