Mississippi farmers want to know: When can we grow hemp? – Jackson Clarion Ledger

Mississippi farmers packed a state Capitol room Monday to learn about a potentially lucrative new crop for their fields: hemp.

Earlier this year, legislators declined to legalize hemp cultivation, despite recent federal approval. Instead they created a group of experts to study it and return recommendations. The 13-member Hemp Cultivation Task Force met for the first time Monday. 

“There is a difference between hemp and marijuana,” Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson told the crowd, addressing a common misconception about the plant. 

Hemp belongs to the same species as marijuana, but holds only trace amounts of the psychoactive compound, THC, that gets pot smokers high. Advocates say growing hemp would be an economic windfall for farmers, especially as the popularity of cannabidiol oil, or CBD — which is extracted from hemp — increases due to its apparent health benefits. 

Congress legalized hemp production as part of the 2018 farm bill. The once-popular crop has several industrial uses including insulation, textiles and rope, but it disappeared during the war on drugs, after being classified as part of the federal controlled substances list. Mississippi and dozens of other states are now considering legalizing industrial hemp production.

On Monday the task force — made up of officials from state agencies and universities — learned about regulations the state would need to allow hemp growing, and challenges farmers could face growing it. 

Chris McDonald, federal affairs director at the state Department of Agriculture, said before the state can allow hemp farming, it'll need to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and federal law enforcement, laying out how it plans to regulate the plant, and its farmers and processors. The state would be required to conduct annual inspections of fields and test for THC, he said. 

“To do this you're talking about extra manpower, extra budget,” McDonald said, a “burdensome” undertaking for any state agency. 

Michael Ledlow, director of the state's Bureau of Plant Industry, said hemp growing is ideal in drier states such as Kentucky, which has already set up a state hemp program. But farmers here, with the wetter climate, may find more difficulty. In addition, there aren't yet any federally-approved pesticides for hemp.

“It's a very, very risky crop,” Ledlow said, and farmers who decide to grow it should be willing to lose “every penny you put in.”

There are also concerns from a law enforcement perspective, said Department of Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher. “You can't tell the difference between hemp and a marijuana plant,” he said, which could potentially allow someone to grow marijuana under the guise of cultivating hemp. 

Law enforcement is also concerned about the proliferation of CBD oil that includes higher levels of THC than advertised, or other illicit drugs, said John Dowdy, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics.

“No one knows what's contained in it, because there are no quality controls for these products, currently,” he said.

But there are potentially big health upsides to CBD oil, explained Dr. Richard Summers, associate vice chancellor for research at University of Mississippi Medical Center. A recent UMMC clinical trial of ten children who had daily seizures found CBD oil caused “dramatic decreases in the number of seizures.” Some didn't have a single seizure for months. The university is planning additional research, Summers said. 

CBD has swiftly become a billion-dollar industry. It's been promoted for its anxiety and inflammation benefits, potentially offering relief for a variety of ailments. Still, the medical science remains hazy. 

It's this booming CBD market that has many Mississippi farmers intrigued, Gipson said. He said most farmers he's talked to don't want to fully convert their fields to hemp — just 40 to 100 acres or so.

That's the idea that Joe Drake, a soybean farmer from Port Gibson, has for his fields. After the meeting, he said he remained interested in the idea of growing about 100 acres of hemp.

But he does plan to follow the task force's discussions closely going forward, especially related to CBD oil. He's curious if farmers might face consequences if they grew hemp that accidentally had an illegal level of THC, or if they sold to an unscrupulous CBD oil producer who sold a contaminated product. 

The task force will break into four subcommittees in the coming months to develop recommendations on hemp law enforcement issues, agronomy, economics and marketing, and regulations and monitoring.

The next task force meeting is Sept. 25. The group must offer its list of hemp recommendations to the Legislature by December. 

More: ‘This will not get you high': Hemp legalization revived in Mississippi House

More: These lawmakers struggled with counting. Now, MS farmers could miss out on hemp in 2019.

More: Mississippi Legislature: These popular bills never really stood a chance this session

Contact Luke Ramseth at 601-961-7050 or lramseth@gannett.com. Follow @lramseth on Twitter. Please support our work at the Clarion Ledger by subscribing. 

Source: https://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/politics/2019/07/09/mississippi-farmers-want-know-when-can-we-grow-hemp/1641385001/


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