Sunday, June 12, 2016

Nebraska's Hemp Battle: Farmers Say Officials Are Blocking a Gold Rush

[ ed. Funny story: back in college my girlfriend and I traveled to Minnesota to visit relatives. While we were there we'd sometimes go out trout fishing on the back roads just to get away for a while. One day, standing next to a small stream, I happened to look up and there must have been an acre of weed, just out there, growing on the other side. Beautiful tall plants, flowering stalks, everything you can imagine. We freaked out! Wading into the dense field of greenery felt like some kind of stoner's dream. Anyway, long story short, we stripped as many plants as we could, crammed them into garbage bags and stashed them in the trunk of my little Datsun. We must have scored several pounds. Later, we drove all the way back to Colorado with our "contraband", dreaming all the way about the ton of money we were going to make (and constantly paranoid about being stopped and arrested along the way). We made it back. But after careful drying and processing (dry ice was involved) we lit up and.... nothing. WTF? It never occurred to us it was just hemp. We could have rolled a joint the size of a Cuban Cigar and still not have gotten a buzz. So we ended up throwing it all away (after risking arrest and a criminal record for transporting an illegal drug across numerous state lines). Ahh, the days of youth and stupidity.]

Twenty miles east of his office at the University of Nebraska, plant geneticist Ismail Dweikat finds what he’s looking for at the fringe of a budding cornfield: wild hemp.

Mixed among other roadside weeds, the hemp bears the familiar narrow five-fingered leaves synonymous with marijuana but almost none of pot’s psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

But hemp is unlikely to be anything more than a ditch weed in the Cornhusker state this year and possibly for years to come. Despite terrain that farmers say is ideal for growing hemp, Nebraskans haven’t been able to cash in on what they believe is a potential gold rush, caught in an epic battle with the government.

“There are so many obstacles,” bemoans Dweikat.

The only permissible means of growing hemp in the state is through university research. But even researchers have faced a series of hurdles that have meant not a single hemp growing operation has launched in Nebraska.

Dweikat was hoping to plant two acres of hemp this spring at a test plot but almost four months after the University of Nebraska sent paperwork seeking to import seeds from Canada to the Drug Enforcement Administration, researchers do not have all the permits necessary to import special seeds from Manitoba, Canada, with THC content certified at less than 0.3%.

If and when the seeds arrive at the university, they will receive the kind of security usually reserved for precious gems. Dweikat says the seeds will be locked in a metal safe inside a locked cage. The university was asked to add metal reinforcement under the safe when DEA agents worried someone could saw the wood beneath the strongbox to get to the seeds, he says.

“There is such a misunderstanding of hemp, it just dumbfounds me,” explains Jon Hanson, an organic farmer in Marquette, who says he’d love to grow hemp on his 480-acre farm.

Unlike neighboring Colorado, where it’s legal to grow such commercial marijuana strains as Purple Haze and Chemdawg, farmers in Nebraska and elsewhere are forbidden by law from planting industrial hemp for prosaic purposes such as fiber and seed oil.

The DEA considers hemp a Schedule I drug – the same as heroin and LSD. The US Farm Bill signed by Barack Obama in 2014 carved out an exception for research and pilot programs, if states pass laws permitting it. Twenty-nine states have done so, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

But in Nebraska, a state bill to allow farmers to apply for this exception was thwarted by senators and police officials who feared hemp would be a gateway crop to recreational marijuana. (...)

“We’re stuck in the mud,” Lupien says. “There are lots and lots of farmers interested in growing an alternative crop in the rotation. It would break the disease and pest cycles and have huge benefits economically and environmentally.”

The Hemp Industries Association estimates some $573m of goods containing hemp were in the United States in 2015, almost all of it imported. These goods included foods, supplements, body care products, clothing, auto parts, insulation and construction materials and medicine. (....)

According to advocates, hemp is as American as apple pie. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all grew hemp, which was used for paper, rope and cloth. The first flag of the United States, sewn by Betsy Ross, is said to have been made from hemp, and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper.

by David Steen Martin, The Guardian | Read more:
Image: David Steen Martin