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Industrial hemp production deserves more study

Marcia O'Connor hemp plants
HEMP QUANDRY: The Indiana Legislature sidestepped a bill that would have allowed industrial hemp production in the state. The question now is whether legislators will study the issue this summer.
The Indiana Legislature didn’t take meaningful action to allow hemp production.

Various groups have investigated growing industrial hemp in Indiana. Interest increased when the 2014 Farm Bill allowed it to be grown for research and development purposes if a state also allowed it.

Hemp is a member of the cannabis family, the same family that includes marijuana. However, they aren’t the same plant. Sources indicate that hemp has very low levels of THC, the substance that affects people who use marijuana. Yet the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 at the federal level made it illegal to grow any cannabis species in the U.S. 

History records that hemp has been used for thousands of years by many civilizations. Fiber and products from hemp seeds have been used in many ways.

Legislative bill
A bill introduced in the 2018 Indiana General Assembly would have put Indiana on a path that could have led to legalizing industrial hemp production. Proponents claim it would give farmers another cash crop. Hemp performs well on many soils and might perform better than traditional row crops in some situations.

Justin Schneider, with Indiana Farm Bureau, says IFB policy supports the idea of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp. There is already an Indiana manufacturer ready to consider using hemp fiber to make certain auto parts, if it were available, Schneider says.

What makes people nervous is the tie, however remote it might be, to marijuana. Some believe it might open the floodgates to legalize growing marijuana.

Is it paranoia, or is there reason for concern? Frankly, we understand why it makes people nervous. In the mid-1980s, the big issue was legalizing a lottery. Proponents claimed it would raise money for education. After all, it wasn’t like Indiana would be legalizing casino-style gambling.

Skeptics gave in, the lottery passed, and the rest is history. Casino gambling, first restricted to riverboats, came next. Gambling has expanded. The floodgates are open.

More study
If industrial hemp could be grown in Indiana and there were safeguards so it could not lead to an increase in illegal drugs, it might boost the ag economy. That’s a big “if,” however.

The bill stalled this session, partly because the Indiana State Department of Agriculture isn’t set up as a regulatory agency. ISDA doesn’t have the manpower or financial capability to regulate a hemp production program. A neighboring state, Kentucky, is taking a serious look at industrial hemp. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is better equipped to regulate and oversee such an effort.

The Indiana Legislature finally included language that would allow a study committee to look more closely at industrial hemp. It passed when added to another bill on a different subject.

However, just because the Legislature authorizes a study committee doesn’t mean one will be established. It’s up to legislators to decide if they want a study committee to hold hearings and do further investigation.

Indiana Prairie Farmer hopes the Legislature decides to study this issue further, either through a summer study committee or an informal study process between the administration and key legislators.

There are legitimate concerns and questions that should be addressed. However, locking the door on a potential boost to the ag economy without exploring it further seems equivalent to sticking your head in the sand.

We’re hopeful leaders will put the issue on the table, hear from experts and let sound science be a guiding light.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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