Lawmaker backs allowing production of hemp

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BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) - Some write off hemp as a plant too similar to marijuana to be useful, but at least one Nebraska State Senator sees potential for an additional cash crop that could bring added revenue to Nebraska farmers.

Dist. 30 Sen. Norman Wallman of Cortland has introduced LB1001, which would allow farmers to become licensed to grow industrial hemp.

Hemp is often regarded as a cousin plant to marijuana, though hemp has low levels of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes users high.

“It’s an alternative crop if farmers want to do something like this,” Wallman told the Beatrice Daily Sun (http://bit.ly/1e9YSTz). “It uses a lot less water than corn. It could be grown where there’s less rainfall and irrigation. I think it could definitely be profitable for smaller producers.”

Hemp is used in several products including clothing, rope, food and lotions.

In 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, much of which comes from China, up from $1.4 million in 2010.

Wallman sees potential for industrial hemp production in Nebraska, but emphasized he has no intention of allowing the useful plant to be a gateway to also legalizing marijuana use.

“This bill is about agriculture,” Wallman said. “It’s not a gateway to legalizing recreational marijuana. It’s not a new thing, and industrial hemp is completely different form marijuana.”

Industrial hemp is illegal under federal law, although legalizing the measure is pending in the proposed farm bill.

District 17 Sen. Dave Bloomfield who cosigned the bill isn’t sure how far it will go in the legislature this year, but said it’s worth taking a look at if allowing the product to be grown in Nebraska would help farmers and eliminate the need to import hemp products.

“I believe it’s time we had the conversation about a farm crop that is quite viable,” Bloomfield said. “I don’t pretend to ever foresee hemp replacing corn as a cash crop in Nebraska, but it could be an alternative in some areas.

“As soon as you say ‘industrial hemp’ a lot of people jump to the marijuana conclusion, and we shouldn’t think that. We used to grow (hemp) all over the country, then decided we shouldn’t anymore but still import the products. Why in the world would we not grow our own?”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states - California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia - currently have laws promoting the growth and marketing of industrial hemp.

If adopted, Wallman said the bill would come with its share of restrictions to prevent misuse, such as requiring an annual permit from the Department of Agriculture, a $150 permit fee, a legal description of the land and background checks preventing anyone with a criminal background from growing industrial hemp.

As of Thursday, a hearing date was yet to be set for the bill.

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