Lexington, Kentucky — Kentucky lawmakers looking for constructive ways to occupy their time during the first “annual” General Assembly next year might want to do something for the state’s farmers — something like reviving House Bill 855.
The bill would allow state universities to conduct research into production of industrial hemp. The bill passed the House this year on a 63-31 vote, was reported out of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee (albeit without a recommendation), but remained stuck in the Senate Rules Committee when the session ended.
As The New York Times noted in an editorial a couple of years ago, industrial hemp suffers — unfairly — from guilt by association. Its distant cousin is marijuana. That’s pot, grass, the stuff some folks smoke — illegally — to get high.
But industrial hemp differs from marijuana in some very important ways. The stuff in marijuana that gives you that buzz — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — is virtually non-existent in industrial hemp. Marijuana’s THC content runs as high as 20 percent; industrial hemp’s THC content is less than 1 percent.
Marijuana is grown for its leaves; industrial hemp is grown for the fiber of its stalk. And when the two plants are grown in close proximity, cross-pollination from the industrial hemp cuts the THC content of marijuana, making it less valuable on the illegal drug market. So, pot growers aren’t going to use industrial hemp as a cover for growing their own product.
Canada, China and European nations grow industrial hemp without problems. A handful of states in this nation are experimenting with production of the crop. The American Farm Bureau supports research into the growing of hemp. So does the Kentucky Farm Bureau. Hemp’s supporters also include two former governors: Republican Louie Nunn and Democrat Edward T. Breathitt.
There are good reasons that hemp, which once was a staple of Kentucky’s Farm economy, is getting a new look worldwide. It’s a hardy, pest- and disease-resistant source of fiber that can be used for everything from clothing to paper products to an alternative for plastic.
Yes, the growing of industrial hemp is now illegal in the United States. But someday, perhaps soon, that will change. The plant serves too many useful purposes for this ban to remain in effect indefinitely.
If Kentucky begins research on the production and marketing of hemp now, we can be ready to help farmers return to hemp-growing when the ban is lifted.
And Kentucky farmers, reeling from the rapid decline of the tobacco economy, badly need that kind of help.
Hemp can’t replace tobacco. The estimated $200- to $600-per-acre return on hemp is far below the return on tobacco.
But it’s considerably higher than the return farmers can get from most other crops, and it might make the difference in saving a few family farms in this state.
That’s sufficient reason for the 2001 General Assembly to allow state universities to begin research into industrial hemp.
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