Hemp on the horizon?


Legislature mulls Nebraska hemp bill

SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. – Hemp production has a history in Nebraska, and it looks like the versatile crop has a decent chance of returning to farmer’s fields in the next few years – as long as it can get past the Nebraska legislature. 

Nebraska would be following the lead of Wyoming and several other states if LB657, which was introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne, were to become law. The 2018 Farm Bill reclassified hemp as an agricultural product as opposed to controlled substance, and those states have legalized it as a means to diversify and grow their economies. 

The bill would legalize the growth and cultivation of hemp, which is a cultivar of Cannabis sativa. It’s a cousin of marijuana, but it does not have enough THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to get a user high. 

What it can do, according to some of its proponents, is be manufactured into more than 25,000 products, from building materials, to textiles, to CBD oil – a health supplement said to cure epilepsy, anxiety and a host of other maladies. 

“Hemp production is coming, one way or another, and rather than being out of the business for two to three years, it’s important we get in now,” Wayne told the Lincoln Journal-Star. 

Wayne’s bill, dubbed the Nebraska Hemp Act, would outline testing procedures to ensure Nebraska hemp has less than 0.3 percent THC, as well as set up a registration procedure, licensing and fee requirements and enforcement requirements. 

Hemp was last legally grown in Nebraska during World War II, and the resulting fibers were used for the war effort. At that time, Wayne said, Nebraska was the top hemp producer. It dates back to 1880 in the Cornhusker State, when the first successful crop was grown in the Fremont area. 

Whereas hemp legalization legislation passed with no resistance in Wyoming, it has been met with some criticism amongst Nebraska lawmakers. Sen. John Lowe of Kearney said legalizing industrial hemp would negatively affect the youth of Nebraska. 

“I caution us as we head down this path,” Lowe said. “Agriculture is very important to this state. To say we’re going to live or die by this one crop we have not grown for a long time I don’t believe is true.”

Lowe also claimed that cows that eat hemp are born with deformities, even though scientific studies conducted by the Colorado Department of Agriculture have shown that feeding hemp seed meal helps improve digestion, increases life expectancy and produces good meat flavor. 

Lowe also made a claim to have read in an article – which he neglected to cite – that people are drying out hemp and smoking it, which he said resulted in people getting high, despite the lack of THC. 

“The people of this state should not be hoodwinked by the name of hemp,” he said. “People have rebutted that you don’t smoke ditchweed. I read an article where it is the hot new thing they are doing.”

As of April 17, LB657 had passed on first reading. It will need to pass two more readings to become law. 

Growing in the Panhandle

While hemp proponents claim the Wyobraska regional climate is ideal for growing hemp, there hasn’t been much in the way of actual research, according to Dr. Jack Whittier, Director of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff. 

According to Whittier, the crop was researched at length during World War II – but not much has happened with it since, as it was technically illegal. 

“I’m certain there hasn’t been anything done here recently in relation to it,” he said. 

“There was a fair amount of hemp researched for the fiber at that point. Beyond that point, I don’t know. The Farm Bill allowed that just in the last few months. Everybody is trying to determine what we know and what we don’t know, then do the research that is not known yet.”

Whittier said if the legislature passes the law, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture would draft the state’s plan, then send it to the United States Department of Agriculture. Once it’s approved there, a producer would need to obtain a permit from the NDA. 

When – and if – it comes time to put hemp seeds into Nebraska soil, Whittier said producers will have the same resources available to them through the university they would have for any other crop. 

“It’s like all of the crops that are available,” he said. “We have etymologists, and soil scientists and irrigation and they may not be totally schooled on that particular crop, but they know enough about their expertise that they can provide agricultural support for those things.”

It’s not pot

Hemp is not marijuana, despite Lowe’s claims. 

According to research conducted at the University of Wyoming by Dr. Caitlin Youngquist that was used to guide Wyoming’s legislation, there are distinct differences between cannabis plants grown for agricultural use and those grown for their psychoactive properties.

“Consider the difference between sugar beets and table beets,” Youngquist wrote. “One species, but two different cultivars with very different uses.”

The cultivars that will be legal in Wyoming – and Nebraska, if the legislature approves – are very low in THC. The difference in the plants is that industrial hemp cultivars are more hollow, which allows more energy to be directed into the production of bark fiber, Youngquist wrote. 

According to Wayne, hemp could be a $1 billion industry in Nebraska, once the industry is established. That said, despite the early support by most in the legislature, LB657’s passage is anything but certain. 

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed her state’s hemp bill because of the stigma derived by its relation to marijuana, a move that prompted the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Oren Lesmeister, to claim other states were “probably jumping for joy” because they could get a bigger piece of the market. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office, by contrast, was heavily involved in crafting LB657, and has worked with both the NDA and the Nebraska State Patrol to find the best practices for the crop. 

“The farm bill legalized hemp nationally, and the state is pursuing a regulatory framework in response to federal action,” Taylor Gage, a spokesman for the governor, said. 

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