Legislators may encounter debates on industrial plant
Springfield, Illinois — Is industrial hemp a way to boost the fortunes of Illinois’ struggling farmers or a tool for encouraging drug abuse?
That’s something state lawmakers may have to decide for themselves this fall when they return to the Capitol.
Some lawmakers have been pushing a proposal to allow the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University to conduct research on hemp production. The legislation, Senate Bill 1397, won easy Senate approval last spring and is pending in the House of Representatives.
But there’s a glitch: Hemp is a biological relative of marijuana. It may not be grown legally without a permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Opponents of the legislation, including the Illinois State Police, say its approval could send a mixed message to young people about drug use. Opponents also fear that approval of the bill could pave the way to legalization of marijuana.
The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Ron Lawfer, R-Stockton, didn’t call it for a floor vote during the spring legislative session because he didn’t think it had enough support. It could be voted on when lawmakers resume working here in November.
“I think there was a lot of misunderstanding with regard to what the bill actually did,” Lawfer said this week. “Everybody seems to think this is so-called “sending the wrong message.” All we’re trying to do is (study) industrial hemp.”
“Because of the state of the agriculture economy, we’re looking for different ways to improve farm income,” Lawfer said. “Industrial hemp would never replace corn or soybeans.”
But hemp — once grown legally in Illinois and now grown in Canada and other parts of the world — could be deemed a good “supplement” to the state’s two major crops, he said.
Industrial hemp grows quickly and can be used to produce a variety of products, such as hand cream, paper, clothing and salad oil.
“There are some beneficial characteristics of the crop that would make it good for a third crop — herbicide use would be minimal, if any,” said Don Briskin, a professor of plant biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Also, there’s some evidence that if you plant industrial hemp before soybeans, that might reduce the incidence of (the pest) soybean root knot nematode.”
If SB1397 is approved, the universities would study various aspects of industrial hemp, including fiber quality, genetics and prospects for developing the seed, Briskin said.
Opponents to the industrial hemp legislation in Illinois say their skepticism isn’t based purely on worries about the legalization of marijuana. They also question how much of a demand really exists for the crop.
“There’s not a market for this,” said Judy Kreamer, a vocal opponent to SB1397. Kreamer, a Naperville resident, past president of the Illinois Drug Education Alliance and current president of Educating Voices, another anti-drug organization.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture report earlier this year indicated that the demand for industrial hemp in this country could be met by about 2,000 acres, she said.
“So we’re telling farmers that this is your crop? That this is going to help you? It just sees ludicrous,” Kreamer said.
Opponents’ main worry, though, centers on drug abuse.
“We oppose the legislation,” said Capt. Dave Sanders, spokesman for the Illinois State Police. “Here’s why: We’re concerned about the mixed message about drugs and drug abuse that would be sent to our youth.”
Kreamer added, “Our concern is drug-free children and the impact this would have on children that’s where we come from.” She also believes that industrial hemp issue is “more about legalizing marijuana that it is about finding an alternative crop for farmers.”
Lawfer, a farmer, insists that isn’t true.
He said fellow farmers in his legislative district asked him three or four years ago to look into the idea of studying industrial hemp as a cash crop. They don’t have a “hidden agenda,” such as the legalization of marijuana, he said.
He noted that although marijuana and hemp both contain the psychoactive ingredient known as THC – tetrahydrocannibinol – the amount in industrial hemp is extremely low.
Supporters of the legislation have said the level is so low that people who try to smoke industrial hemp for a high will wind up with little more than a headache.
Kreamer, however, believes there is no such thing as a “safe” level of THC.
Kreamer said she sympathizes with Illinois’ struggling farmers, but hemp is no cure-all.
“We’re sensitive to (farmers’) needs,” she said. “But it’s just like this is a terrible scam that is being played on them, and it shouldn’t happen.”
Illinois isn’t alone in considering the economic possibilities of industrial hemp. More than a dozen other states also are eyeing it as a way to help farmers.
Taking the lead is Hawaii, which in December 1999, became the first state in almost 50 years to legally plant the crop. Hawaii state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican, successfully pushed for that state’s lawmakers to approve legislation creating the “Hawaii Industrial Hemp Research Project.”
Researchers in Hawaii are studying different varieties of hemp, trying to determine which would be best, Thielen said.
In Hawaii, she said, about two years passed before most lawmakers were convinced that it was a good idea to study hemp as a possible cash crop.
“We had to educate the legislators, but once they were educated and recognized that industrial hemp benefits the economy, then they stopped their opposition,” she said.
“I cannot understand why Illinois isn’t a leader in this,” Thielen added. “Those legislators just need to realize that: Wait a minute, This means money for our farmers and money in our economy.”
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