Push sprouts to grow hemp again in Oklahoma
A new push to legalize growing hemp, marijuana's nonintoxicating cousin, is sprouting in Oklahoma.
A bill at the Oklahoma Legislature this session authored by Sen. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, would allow hemp farming in Oklahoma for the first time since the early 20th Century.
Pittman believes Senate Bill 704 would give new opportunities for universities in Oklahoma to study hemp cultivation, as well as create a new source of income for the state.
"This is a revenue-generating piece of legislation. It will allow people to extract wealth from Oklahoma ... and create jobs," Pittman said.
Oklahoma City-based Can-Tek Labs, LLC uses hemp imported from Colorado to make Cannabidiol, a nonintoxicating health supplement believed to help users with everything from anxiety to muscle pain.
Can-Tek Labs CEO Ryan Early dreams of one day buying his hemp from Oklahoma growers. Early is an evangelist of sorts for hemp production in Oklahoma, and has been speaking to Oklahoma lawmakers and other state officials about legalization over the past several months.
"Right now, I send a lot of money to Colorado, and I'd like to keep that money here in Oklahoma," he said.
Jim Reese, Oklahoma secretary of agriculture, said that while he recognizes the number of new uses being discovered for hemp, he's still not sold.
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"I'm very fond of science and I'm very fond of agronomy," Reese said. "I think agriculture has done amazing things through plant breeding and identify things through different plants."
However, Reese said he has concerns that some hemp might still contain higher levels of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana.
Law enforcement has long believed that hemp farming could be used as a cover for marijuana cultivation, something hemp proponents dispute.
Both hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the plant cannabis sativa. It can be difficult to discern the difference between hemp and marijuana, except through testing the THC level of a plant, Reese said.
"It's the same plant, but one has higher THC," Reese said. "You would have to license every field and inspect every field and ensure it's being grown correctly."
New uses for hemp
Once grown by Oklahoma farmers to make rope and sacks, hemp is making a comeback in other states.
The 2014 Farm Bill contained a provision permitting universities and state departments of agriculture to begin cultivating industrial hemp for limited purposes. So far, 31 states have moved to defined hemp as distinct from marijuana, removing legal barriers to production, according to the Hemp Industries Association.
Norma Sapp, director of the Oklahoma branch of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said she believes recent advances in technology and the law have given hemp the potential to boost Oklahoma's economy.
"It would be a win-win for our state because the farmers can make a lot of money," Sapp said.
Hemp is used to make a wide range of consumer goods, ranging from fabric, paper, cosmetics, car door panels and even breakfast cereal, said Eric Steenstra, president of the hemp industry group Vote Hemp. There's even "Hempcrete," an eco-friendly building material that can be used in housing construction.
"I think the biggest barrier has been misinformation and that hemp has been caught up in this classification with marijuana for decades," Steenstra said. "When you talk to someone about hemp, they are going to think of either something to make rope with, or marijuana."
Even if Oklahoma legalizes hemp production, it could take time for the crop to become profitable.
Tennessee launched a pilot program in 2015 for farmers to grow hemp from seeds imported from Canada and Italy, which has seen mixed results.
"It has not been a revenue producer yet," said Corinne Gould, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "They're still trying to find a commercial market for it."
Out of 49 Tennessee hemp growers in 2016, just seven sold their harvested crop, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.
Six sold to a Tennessee industrial hemp processor and another made his own hemp oil. One grower in Chapel Hill, Tennessee., turned his crop into an industrial hemp maze. A Tennessee brewery is also using hemp seeds make hemp-infused spirits, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said.
Hemp has history here
Feral marijuana, called "ditchweed" still grows in some parts of the state, despite government efforts to eradicate the plant. Ditchweed lacks the intoxicating chemicals found in cultivated marijuana and does not have any value as an illicit drug.
Instead, ditchweed is believed to descend from industrial hemp once cultivated across the Midwest, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
In 2001 alone, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration eradicated 5.8 million ditchweed plants in Oklahoma, according to DEA archives.
Sapp recalls her grandfather talking about growing hemp on the family farm along with cotton in Kiowa County in Southwestern Oklahoma.
"Everybody had to have it for cordage to make rope out of it out of it, or cloth sacks — they had to have sacks for that cotton," Sapp said.
However, hemp was probably never a large cash crop in Oklahoma, said local hemp historian Chris Abernathy.
Abernathy is writing his doctoral dissertation on the history of hemp at the University of Oklahoma.
"Hemp has always been promoted as the next big crop, but it never really took off," he said. "It was never more than a niche crop that farmers used for fiber."