Editor’s Note:This story is the fifth part in a series of articles and video documentaries that surveys the state of the legal marijuana and hemp industries.To read the previous article on hemp and marijuana executives tied to crimes, go here.
MURRAY STATE UNIVERSITY, Kentucky—In 1994, Chris Boucher planted industrial hemp at the USDA Research Center in Imperial Valley, California. As the owner of a company that sold hemp T-shirts, wallets, backpacks and hemp seed oil, Boucher figured it would be just a few years before growing hemp in the United States was legal.
Earlier this month, Boucher was beaming while exploring a hemp field at Murray State University.
“We’ve waited almost 20 years to this day for hemp to be legal in the United States," he declared here on a muggy-free day in July.
The trek to legalize marijuana’s cousin hemp is far from over. Earlier this year, Congress authorized the cultivation and growth of industrial hemp—but only for research purposes.
Industrial hemp hails from the same plant species (Cannabis Sativa L.) as marijuana, and federal law still classifies hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance along with such hardcore drugs as heroin, LSD and peyote. That’s in spite of the fact that hemp contains little of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes a smoker high: THC. Under this year’s Farm Bill, a plant meets the definition of “industrial hemp" if it contains no more than 0.3% of THC, otherwise known as delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol.
“I always like to say there’s more opiates in a poppy seed than there is THC in a hemp seed," said Boucher, who manages US Hemp Oil, a division of CannaVest Corp., a developer and marketer of hemp-based consumer products with a focus on the compound cannabidiol (CBD). “Looking at it from that standpoint, I think logic will dictate the outcome here on the legality of industrial hemp."
Kentucky leads hemp pilot projects
Of the world’s industrialized countries, the United States is the only one that prohibits production of industrial hemp, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. An estimated 55,700 metric tons of industrial hemp are produced annually around the world, with China, Russia and South Korea supplying 70% of a crop that is used in such products as paper, foods and nutritional supplements, the state agency said.
Kentucky, whose largest industry is agriculture, is striving to capitalize on hemp production should Congress eventually authorize it for commercial production. Section 7606 of the Farm Bill is the first step in that journey. President Obama signed the bill into law on Feb. 7, 2014, authorizing institutions of higher education or state agriculture departments to study the growth, cultivation or marketing of industrial hemp in states that permit the growth or cultivation of the crop.
Hemp has not been grown in the United States since 1957, according to Vote Hemp, a grassroots hemp advocacy organization.
"With the U.S. hemp industry estimated at over $500 million in annual retail sales and growing, a change in federal law to allow colleges and universities to grow hemp for research means that we will finally begin to regain the knowledge that unfortunately has been lost over the past 50 years," Vote Hemp president Eric Steenstra said in a statement following passage of the Farm Bill. "This is the first time in American history that industrial hemp has been legally defined by our federal government as distinct from drug varieties of cannabis."
Adam Watson, industry hemp program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said his agency is leading the hemp pilot projects that the Farm Bill authorized.
“To the best of my knowledge, we have the most aggressive pilot program out there," he said.
Although a number of states have passed hemp laws, Boucher is aware of only one other state that is conducting research on hemp cultivation: Colorado, which happens to be only one of two states that has legalized marijuana for recreational use. In fact, Amendment 64—the 2012 ballot initiative that legalized recreational pot—also directed Colorado lawmakers to enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp.
Following passage of an industrial hemp law last year by the Colorado General Assembly, roughly 200 private growers have registered with the Colorado Department of Agriculture for research and commercial purposes, said Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner of the agency. Of the 1,555 acres registered with the state agriculture department, 1,312 acres are for commercial purposes while 243 acres are for R&D, he said.
“I think once other states start to see … the success of this test crop, then we’ll see other states start to figure out how to get their rules lined up so they can do this," said Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), commenting on the hemp plants at Murray State University.
AHPA, CannaVest executives visit hemp field
McGuffin and a colleague from AHPA, Chief Information Analyst Merle Zimmermann, recently visited the hemp field there and met with CannaVest executives and university officials.
In Kentucky, under the oversight of the state agriculture department, a number of educational institutions are studying myriad aspects of industrial hemp from its sensitivity to herbicides (University of Kentucky) to how well it grows if the soil isn’t tilled (Murray State University).
Murray State University has grown what is perhaps the nation’s first legal industrial hemp in generations. The plants are located on a 250-acre farm that the university’s agriculture school manages to study various crops such as corn, tobacco and soybeans.
“This hemp was planted May the 12th, the first in the State of Kentucky and we believe in the nation," said Tony Brannon, dean of the Hutson School of Agriculture, which enrolled nearly 900 students last fall and ranks among the largest non-land grant agriculture colleges in the nation.
By mid-summer, some plants had soared to be eight-feet tall.
Kentucky is a logical place to study hemp. Some locals have parents and grandparents who grew the crop. During World War II, Kentucky was a leader in hemp production, Brannon said.
“Our farmers are very good at adapting to whatever crop is there," he said. “It’s been said that you give us a market and Kentucky farmers will be overproducing it in a couple of years … If [industrial hemp is] a legal crop and it’s of economic value to our farmers and to our area, we definitely want to play whatever role we can."
Boucher and other CannaVest executives recently flew into Nashville, Tennessee from their offices in San Diego and drove the roughly two hours northwest to see the hemp field and chat with university officials about various aspects of the project, including future testing of the hemp and equipment needed to harvest the crop.
In the meetings, university staff expressed the importance of strictly following legal protocols, especially after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency seized hemp seeds that were bound for the state agriculture department. The seeds were later released and distributed to a number of universities after the state agriculture department filed a lawsuit against the DEA.
At Murray State University, where harvesting is likely to occur in October, CannaVest donated more than 100 pounds of hemp seeds, which are derived from France and are known as Futura 75. Those seeds were never seized by DEA. CannaVest also donated a bag of seeds to The Growing Warriors Project, a program that helps veterans grow produce.
Boucher, CannaVest’s vice president of product development, said professional hemp seed breeders designed the seeds to grow predominantly hemp fiber and seed.
“A farmer can sell his seeds and sell his fiber on the market and make a good profit," he said.
Industrial hemp: No ‘get-rich-quick scheme’
It could be years, though, before the United States commercializes industrial hemp, and the opportunities are difficult to fully ascertain for obvious reasons: there is no domestic market yet and hemp is still classified as a controlled substance that cannot be cultivated outside the limited scope of the Farm Bill.
“Ultimately, it’s going to take time to determine what the ultimate marketable crop or products are going to be and it’s going to be economically driven," Watson said.
He said three to five years of data is required in order to be indicative of how a crop performs under various conditions such as dry and wet seasons and an average year.
“Producers need to have a crop reliably come off the field," Watson said. “They’ve got bills every season they’ve got to pay."
Brannon also is realistic about the opportunities for farmers.
“This is certainly no get-rich-quick scheme," he said. “We don’t know what the true economic value is going to be. But that’s where you start. That’s why we start with higher education to determine all the different variables."
CannaVest’s Boucher is stoked over the possibilities of U.S. hemp cultivation. In addition to sponsoring projects like the one at Murray State University, he described CannaVest’s longer-term plans to build mills in order to convert parts of the hemp plant into essential fatty acids and protein powder.
His vision wouldn’t be plausible had Congress not authorized hemp cultivation and research in the Farm Bill. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky, introduced the measure in the Farm Bill conference report.
“We know this field is 100 percent legal," Boucher said, “and this field here is a historical field that … is going to kickstart the American hemp industry once and for all."