By Elliott Minor, Associated Press
Albany, Georgia — Some Georgia farmers are high on the idea of growing industrial hemp, a sibling of marijuana that supporters say provides oil and fibers, but no hallucinations.
Last month, delegates at the annual meeting of the state’s largest farm group, the 322,500-member Georgia Farm Bureau, approved a resolution calling for the University of Georgia to study the cannabis sativa plant. Hemp and marijuana are both members of the cannabis family.
Marijuana leaves contain 4 percent to 20 percent delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the narcotic that gives pot smokers a high. But hemp leaves contain 1 percent or less of the chemical, commonly known as THC, not enough for a buzz.
Georgia farmers are desperate for new crops because of government production cuts on tobacco, two years of dry weather that wiped out some fields and low prices on conventional commodities.
“We’re just saying it ought to be researched to see if it would be feasible for our farmers to grow as an alternative crop,” said Cecil Burk, the Farm Bureau’s legislative director in Macon.
Burk said the Farm Bureau will ask the university to identify hemp varieties that are suited to Georgia’s soils and climate and to determine if they could be grown profitably.
Gale Buchanan, dean of the university’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said he believes there are other crops, such as grain millet and canola, that have greater potential.
“I’m not that excited about hemp from what I know, but the idea of looking for alternative crops is a very high priority,” he said.
Hemp was the leading U.S. crop in the 1700s. Among its prominent growers were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Today, farmers grow industrial hemp in more than 30 countries, including Canada. U.S. farmers had to halt production because of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which failed to make a distinction between hemp and marijuana.
Hemp growing was banned by the Controlled Substances Act of 1972.
Since the mid-1990s there has been a growing effort to legalize hemp. Pro-hemp legislation has been introduced or attempted in more than a dozen states. At least two, Hawaii and Minnesota, have passed bills permitting experimental production.
Scientists at the University of Hawaii planted the nation’s first test plot in December. But to obtain DEA approval, they had to enclose the plot inside a 12-foot-high fence with infrared surveillance. The project received $200,000 from a hair-care company that uses hemp seeds in its products.
Hemp products, which generate an estimated $125 million annually in retail sales, are legal in the United States.
The plant is used to make clothing, rope, candy, beer, health food, paper and a host of other products.
The DEA and the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy oppose hemp farming. Officials say it would send the wrong message to young people and would provide hiding places for marijuana.
Terry Parham, chief spokesman for the DEA in Washington, said hemp is classified as a controlled substance because the leaves contain THC.
“If it’s got it, it’s marijuana,” he said. “It’s the marijuana leaf we’re concerned about in enforcing the law.”
But the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative Association says hemp would help, rather than hinder, anti-drug efforts.
Andy Graves, president of the Lexington, Ky.-based group, said marijuana planted in hemp fields would be cut down before it could produce mind-altering THC levels because hemp matures faster. Also, he said, hemp would reduce the potency of marijuana growing nearby through cross-pollination.
“There’s money to be made,” said Graves, a burley tobacco grower and the first member of his family in seven generations who has not been allowed to grow hemp. “It’s difficult to know how much until we actually do this.”
Joe Hickey, the association’s executive director, said authorization for the experimental plot in Hawaii may mean that federal officials are softening their stand on industrial hemp.
Hickey believes the responsibility for hemp production will shift eventually to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
“It’s a crop and not a drug,” he said.
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