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Hemp: marijuana’s cousin, the plant with ‘2,500 uses’

Hemp: marijuana’s cousin, the plant with ‘2,500 uses’

DEA standing in way of market development in Nebraska

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Omaha entrepreneur John Lupien is pictured with a bundle unprocessed hemp stalks (bottom) and the more refined bast fiber (top), both sitting on an early prototype of a "decorticator" machine that strips out the fibers and inner core of a hemp stalk for use in fabrics and building materials. The photo was taken at a facility at 15006 42nd St. near Plattsmouth. (World-Herald News Service/Kent Sievers)

KEARNEY — Two years after Nebraska legalized the growing of industrial hemp for research purposes, not a single seed has been planted.

The delay, some advocates say, is an economic mistake, leaving the state out of the rush to capitalize on the potential of what some call a “magical plant.”

“It’s got 2,500 uses,” said Ismail Dweikat, an agronomy and horticulture professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The Cornhusker State, he said, is an ideal location to grow hemp, which with little water or fertilizer can be used to make medicine, clothing, cosmetics and building materials.

“You go to the store and you can buy a bottle of hemp oil for $15,” Dweikat said. “We could grow it here.”

But Nebraska has been slow to sow its first hemp crop. Planting didn’t occur last year because state regulations hadn’t yet been approved. Even now, researchers are still struggling through the federal requirements to obtain seed.

That didn’t prevent Dweikat and others from gathering last week at the University of Nebraska at Kearney for a symposium on the potential of industrial hemp.

The mantra at the event: The public needs to get over the misconception that industrial hemp is a high-inducing drug like its cousin, marijuana. Instead, people need to grasp the economic high that the easily grown crop could provide to farmers and processors.

Americans already spend $600 million a year on products containing hemp, and it should be grown here, said Shane Davis, an industrial hemp grower from Colorado.

“Every single one of you should have a slice of that economic pie,” Davis said.

Nebraska has limped out of the starting gate in researching industrial hemp, but that may soon be ending.

Dweikat is part of a group at UNL that is hoping to plant a couple of acres of hemp next month at a research farm near Mead, west of Omaha. He said he has lined up seed from Canada, which already has an established industrial hemp industry.

The research includes finding out which varieties grow best and which varieties are best for producing certain products.

At UNK, a group is working with Davis’ Boulder Hemp Farm to obtain seeds from Colorado. A few varieties would be planted in a greenhouse there this spring.

But there’s still some uncertainty about whether seeds will be obtained in time for spring planting. Hemp is still classified as a controlled substance, so permission from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration must be obtained before purchasing and planting seeds.

The seeds must be certified as low in THC, the substance in marijuana that makes people high.

Industrial hemp is defined as having THC concentrations of not more than 0.3 percent; recreational pot, by contrast, can range from 5 percent to 20 percent.

The federal Farm Bill of 2014 allowed states to permit the growing of industrial hemp for research purposes. The Nebraska Legislature responded by passing a law two years ago, allowing a university or the State Department of Agriculture to plant research plots.

At least 27 states have adopted laws allowing the study or cultivation of industrial hemp, according to the Boulder-based National Hemp Association.

Crops were grown in nine states last year. A half-dozen others, including Nebraska, are expected to have regulations in place this year to grow hemp.

Colorado is a leader. Full-blown commercial production is already under way there: It grew about 2,000 acres of industrial hemp last year, about half of the nation’s total, and production is expected to expand this year.

Colorado has an advantage because the constitutional amendment its voters passed in 2012 required that state lawmakers pass laws by 2014 to allow cultivation of low-THC industrial hemp.

All other states, lacking constitutional amendments like Colorado’s, are still operating “research” plots. Still, that research is growing: In Kentucky, for example, 174 growers have registered to grow 4,600 acres this year.

In addition, the Omaha Tribe has talked about growing industrial hemp on its reservation north of Omaha. And a hemp activist is hoping to grow a crop this year on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the northwest Nebraska border.

In Nebraska, both UNL and UNK officials are awaiting the federal go-ahead to plant seed.

Dweikat said he’s “70 percent” confident that the DEA will approve the UNL plot at Mead — which will use seeds from Canada — after an inspection next month. Eventually, he said, he hopes to develop a strain of hemp from wild plants that now grow in Nebraska.

“Nebraska has the highest genetic diversity of wild hemp in the country. We have ideal conditions to grow it,” he said.

Plantings in Nebraska didn’t happen last spring because the State Ag Department had not yet adopted regulations to govern the activity — a sore spot with hemp advocates who think the state dragged its feet.

State Ag Director Greg Ibach, however, said it took time to understand federal laws that govern hemp. Questions remain, he said, about what oversight the DEA requires of the state.

“From the very beginning there has been a bit of a disconnect between the provisions of the Nebraska statute, to which the department and postsecondary institutions are bound, and the expectations of interested industrial hemp advocates,” Ibach said. “This continues to be evidenced in the criticism and comments that surround the program.”

Those seeking to get involved in hemp say their focus now is to convince the public that their product is different from marijuana and to demonstrate that Nebraska can grow it easily, increasing farm profits and jobs.

An interim study is to be done by the Legislature this summer and fall. When asked whether he supported commercial production of hemp, Gov. Pete Ricketts said recently that he’s awaiting the results of the research being done in Nebraska.

One entrepreneur hoping to capitalize is John Lupien of Omaha, who is building a third prototype of a decorticator machine, which processes hemp stalks into fibers for textiles and powders to make drywall.

Working out of a cabinet shop near Plattsmouth, Lupien said, he already has attracted $500,000 in investment. He touts his processor as cheaper and more efficient than those made in Europe and those used in Canada.

Lupien met with eastern Colorado officials last week about opening a processing plant there. Canada, too, might be a site. But he said he’d rather build a plant in Nebraska and obtain the hemp from local farmers.

“We could have been growing this year, or even last year,” Lupien said. “Instead, we’re spending an excessive amount of money on research for a crop that we don’t need to do research about.”

Allan Jenkins, an economics professor at UNK, organized last week’s symposium. He is writing a book about the history of hemp growing in the state, including a program during World War II that encouraged Nebraska farmers to grow hemp for war supplies. That’s why there’s so much hemp growing wild around the state.

That inspired the name of the presentation at UNK: “Hemp: That Ditch Weed You’ve Been Mowing Might Be Worth $1 Million.”

At the event, Davis described how some of his crop is grown for the lucrative medicine market, including cannabidioil, also called CBD or hemp oil, that is being used to treat seizures. Some BB-sized seeds for medicinal hemp sell for $20 or more each, he said.

Other, less expensive varieties are grown to make clothing and construction bricks that Davis called “hempcrete.”

Taking it all in were two organic farmers from Aurora, Jon and Gene Hansen. They said they’ve been reading up on industrial hemp and think it has great potential in Nebraska. It’s not a fad, Gene Hansen said:

“It’s a miracle plant that we’ve kind of lost track of for the past 80 years.”

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