Bills seek to legalize production of industrial hemp

The production of industrial hemp has been illegal in the U.S. since a federal statute was passed and signed by President Roosevelt in 1937. Despite this, there has still been a substantial demand in the country for the plant and its byproducts, which include paper, insulation, plastics and clothing.

Even with the illegal status of the production of the plant, it is legal to manufacture and refine products out of hemp imported from other countries and states where its production is legal. In 2009, U.S. consumers spent more than $300 million on hemp and products created from it, with the majority of revenue going to China, according to Show-Me Cannabis, a nonprofit association of organizations that support industrial hemp legalization.

Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, said the state’s deprivation of the raw materials that manufacturers, producers and consumers are demanding because of outdated laws is an “economic travesty.”

Curtman sponsored House Bill 830, which he said would correct this problem by allowing Missouri farmers and companies to legally produce industrial cannabis. Sen. Rob Shaaf, R-St. Joseph, sponsored similar legislation, Senate Bill 255. Twenty-two other states have filed measures in the past to legalize the plant’s production, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Both measures would exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana, specifying it as forms of the cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3 percent concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive component present in cannabis. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, medical and recreational marijuana typically have a concentration of the same component somewhere between 1 percent and 5 percent.

Curtman said his bill has safeguards to prevent abuse by those who grow illegal marijuana in the state and wish to add to their income by producing industrial cannabis. Anyone who wishes to grow hemp must obtain a license from the Missouri Department of Agriculture, which requires a complete fingerprint criminal background check.

Anyone who has been found guilty of a felony offense involving the possession, distribution, cultivation or use of a controlled substance will not be eligible for the license, which has to be renewed every three years.

The department would also forward any permit information to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which would conduct background checks.

The measure could act as a potential “mousetrap” to catch illegal drug producers who would try to obtain a license for the production of hemp to make their marijuana cultivation appear legitimate, Curtman said. Those who wish to obtain a permit must subject themselves to annual audits, which would bring to light any illegal financial activity.

“Let’s take a plant that you can’t get high off of, and just to be on the safe side, let’s institute some checks and balances,” Curtman said. “And that’s exactly what this bill does.”

A public hearing was held by the House Economic Development and Business Attraction and Retention Committee on Feb. 24, at which Curtman said the bill was well-received. On March 4, Senate Bill 255 was heard at a Senate Agriculture, Food Production and Outside Resources Committee hearing. Tom Smith, president of Flat Branch Pub and Brewing and a Missouri landowner, testified in support of the bills at both hearings, saying he believed industrial hemp was wrongly grouped with marijuana in the 1937 statute outlawing both.

“It’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water,” Smith said after the hearing. “I don’t think that hemp should have been made illegal to begin with.”

The House committee voted to pass the bill with amendments on March 11.

“This isn’t anywhere close to a (marijuana) legalization conversation,” said committee chairman Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. “I think it’s well-drafted to accomplish the stated goal.”

Both measures are estimated to cost $60,000 in fiscal year 2016 and more than $5,000 annually for the following two years out of the state’s general revenue fund. These costs will allow the Department of Agriculture to create a hemp monitoring program to track the locations of the plant’s production and the Highway Patrol to administer background checks on all applicants.

“I haven’t had anyone knock on my door and say this isn’t a good idea,” Curtman said. “But I have had a lot of people knock on my door and say this is a great idea.”

This article was re-published in its entirety with the permission of the Columbia Missourian.

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