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Hemp legalization poses complex issues for all involved in Kentucky

Janet PattonLexington Herald-Leader

The nightmare hemp scenario for Kentucky State Police apparently is a field legally licensed to grow hemp for grain with illegally planted marijuana mingled in.

Unlike hemp grown for fiber (when the plants are inches apart to promote tall stalk growth), the hemp grown for grain and marijuana plants would look substantially the same, said Jeremy Triplett, supervisor of the state police forensic lab.

Both could be shorter and bushy. The only way to really know, he said, would be to test for delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that gives marijuana smokers a high.

Such testing could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, at $755 per quantitative analysis, not to mention $1.8 million in start-up expenses, state police have estimated.

But would that really happen? Would an unscrupulous pot grower plant marijuana with hemp?

Take Canada, where marijuana also is illegal but hemp has been legally grown since 1998: "Health Canada's Industrial Hemp Program has never found marijuana growing in hemp fields instead of hemp," the agency said in a statement.

They've looked. A lot.

Canadian inspectors take samples annually from each field and have found THC levels slightly above 0.3 percent from stress during growing, but not above 0.5 percent, Health Canada said.

Keith Watson, Manitoba Agriculture Food and Rural Initiatives agronomist, has seen and tested most of the hemp grown in his province in the past 15 years. Does marijuana creep in?

"I've never run into it," Watson said. About 95 percent of the crop is sampled annually, and he said that marijuana and grain hemp might look just alike and could be planted side by side and only an expert eye might distinguish the difference. But in his experience, it just doesn't happen.

"Over the years, that's taken me out to an awful lot of fields," Watson said. "I've never found marijuana in the field or any trace of it."

He said a "handful" of times he has seen paths cut into the fields, places where people have topped the plants. But it doesn't happen much anymore.

"After a couple of years, nobody bothers it," he said.

What about marijuana?

As for marijuana growers using hemp to pad their illegal pot, "the general impression is that's a self-regulating industry," Watson said. "They'll get away with it once ... but if the quality (of the marijuana) isn't up to par, there will be a lot of broken kneecaps."

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and others say marijuana growers would not want hemp anywhere near their illegal crop because the extra-low THC varieties of Cannibis sativa known as hemp would cross-pollinate with the high-THC Cannibis sativa that is marijuana and weaken the potency of the illegal product.

But Triplett, of the state police lab, said there is a flaw in that argument: The offspring of the current crop might be watered down, but the original plants would be just as potent as ever.

"I might reduce my profit margin, but I can plant 10 acres in plain view and not worry about it," Triplett said.

Most of the 3,128 samples of marijuana that Triplett's lab tested last year for felony drug cases had much higher levels of THC than 0.3 percent. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that 10 percent is about the norm nationally.

"But I can tell you for sure there's still lots of very average marijuana out there," Triplett said.

Kentucky State Police Chief Rodney Brewer confirmed that. "Ten percent would be a good grade for Kentucky," he said.

His office destroyed 441,000 marijuana plants last year, and he attributes much of it to Mexican drug cartels willing to come to Kentucky, grow "what we call ditchweed — 3 to 4 to 5 percent THC — grow twice as much, sell twice as much and make twice the profit," Brewer said.

As for Canada's experience, Brewer said: "Just because they didn't find it doesn't mean it's not there."

He pointed to the boom in medical marijuana in Canada, which he said keeps the Royal Canadian Mounted Police busy, primarily stopping indoor growers.

But medical marijuana growers are not thrilled with hemp either.

In California, where medical marijuana growers are aiming for THC levels of 30 percent or higher, many growers are up in arms over the possibility of hemp being grown in the San Joaquin Valley, said Sarah Soares, an advocate with the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform.

They argue that "pollen from industrial hemp will destroy their crops," she said.

Even indoor growers go to great lengths to prevent pollen from sneaking in, with HEPA filters and sticky mats at doorways.

Why?

One way growers boost the level of THC is by destroying male pollen-producing flowers so the female flowers keep producing sticky, THC-laden resin. Once the flowers are fertilized, they stop making the resin and set seed, something that most growers don't want.

"Nobody will buy marijuana that is full of seeds anymore," Soares said. "That was the '70s."

Soares said that the law enforcement argument that marijuana might be hidden among the hemp is "a Trojan horse." Any grower who wanted to hide in plain sight would be taking a risk: Scrutiny is guaranteed.

"Farmers are in farming to make money. If they planted something that would get them in trouble, they wouldn't make money," Soares said.

What's the cost of testing?

Kentucky Senate Bill 50, filed by state Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, gives the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and law enforcement the right to inspect hemp crops at will; the GPS coordinates of fields would be reported as well, to avoid confusion.

As for increased drug testing, it is not clear that the state police drug lab would be required to do much more work than they do now: The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is prepared to handle testing to regulate industrial hemp, Comer said.

"It will cost $20 to do a test," Comer said. The state Agriculture Department "can do all the testing without one additional person or one additional penny of tax dollars."

What are the economic benefits?

Brewer and narcotics officers have said that hemp's economic benefits have been overblown. Brewer, along with House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said that it needs more study.

Brewer pointed to Canada, which studied hemp production for three years before licensing farmers. There, hemp has been a bit of a roller coaster, but the general trajectory remains up.

"It's a very small industry at this point, but it's growing at about 20 to 25 percent a year, each year," said Watson, the hemp agronomist. "So it's getting to be fairly significant."

But there have been ups and downs. In 2006, a bumper crop combined with overplanting resulted in a depressed market from which growers are just now recovering.

Even during the down years, production and processing still grew, Watson said.

"It's a solid 50,000 acres in Canada now, which is pretty small, but it's worth a few million dollars," he said.

He said the United States could be looking at a similar boom/bust cycle if hemp restrictions are lifted: "Everybody will want to grow it," he said. That would result in a huge oversupply until the processing and the market catch up.

But the bigger problem might be winning over farmers from record high prices for corn, which at current prices could gross about $1,000 an acre.

In Canada, hemp typically generates a gross return of $350 to $400 an acre, he said.

"Hemp has to compete to buy its acres," Watson said.

Comer said that Kentucky farmers will have the information they need to make a market-driven decision.

The Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which he chairs, has commissioned the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to study the economic potential of hemp production in the state.

The UK study will not be ready until late spring or early summer; it will be used, hemp commission members said, to lobby on the federal level for changes that could allow Kentucky to be among the first states in decades to grow hemp.

"The farmers won't grow it if it's not economically viable," Comer said. "Farmers are smart businesspeople. They won't grow it if they can't make money. And no processor will come if they can't make money either."

But he said that, based on the phone calls and meetings he has had since the hemp debate has resurfaced, he doesn't think the market will be a problem.

"Let the bureaucrats get out of the way," Comer said, "and let the market dictate what happens."

STATE SENATE COMMITTEE TO VOTE ON HEMP BILL ON MONDAY

The state Senate Agriculture Committee will vote Monday on Senate Bill 50, sponsored by state Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, to license Kentucky farmers to grow hemp if federal restrictions are lifted.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, and U.S. Reps. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, and Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, will testify with Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and James Woolsey, former director of the CIA.

The hearing will be at 11 a.m. Monday in Room 131 of the Capitol Annex, 700 Capitol Avenue Loop in Frankfort.

Separate hemp legislation will be the subject of a hearing in the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee on Wednesday.


Janet Patton
Lexington Herald-Leader