As Citrus Industry Struggles, Lawmakers Consider Industrial Hemp

Mar 22, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 5:47 pm

Across the country, advocates are hailing industrial hemp as a miracle crop. Some Floridians even think the plant could surpass oranges as an agricultural powerhouse. But lawmakers in the capitol are urging caution.

Hemp has a long history in the United States. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson reportedly grew the plant on their plantations. During World War II, the federal government urged farmers to boost production in this 1942 propaganda film Hemp For Victory.

“But now with Philippine and East Indian sources of hemp in the hands of the Japanese, and shipment of jute from India curtailed, American hemp must meet the needs of our Army and Navy, as well as of our industry," the film narrator said. "In 1942, patriotic farmers at the government’s request planted 36,000 acres of seed hemp, an increase of several thousand percent. The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of seed hemp.”

But for decades, there was one small hiccup. The government banned hemp alongside marijuana. The plants are closely related. But unlike pot, hemp has only small traces of the key active ingredient THC. And in recent years, the federal government has lightened up on hemp research. Jeff Sharkey represents Treadwell Nurseries.

“The reason this bill is necessary is the 2014 Federal Farm Bill authorized states to initiate these research projects. Twenty states have done that, Kentucky, West Virginia,” Sharkey said.

The bill in question is sponsored by Representative Ralph Massullo, a Beverly Hills Republican. Under the plan, universities could see how Florida’s climate affects the plant, and what market there is for the byproducts. Cannabis lobbyist Jody James says hemp is showing up in building materials, cosmetics, grocery stores and car parts.

“Because hemp is so environmentally friendly, and because the end products you create with the resin from hemp replaces plastisols, if someone you know recently bought a BMW, their dashboard is probably already made from hemp,” James said.

The potential benefits of industrial hemp cultivation can be dizzying. But the USDA does list the plant as an invasive. And it’s not clear how it might affect Florida’s ecosystem. Which is why Republican Representative Ben Albritton of Bartow wants scientists to do five years of research before the state approves commercial growers.

“There’s risk to being an early adopter, right? It’s great to be in a marketplace and be able to get the great price. But there’s risk in farming, there’s risk, risk, risk. And understanding that risk is important,” Albritton said.

But Palm Beach Gardens Republican Representative Rick Roth thinks farmers shouldn’t have to wait.

“There is a strong need to find new crops, and as Representative Edwards said, some people can’t wait five years,” Roth said.

Representative Massullo says the plant is disease and pest resistant, and helps take harmful pollutants out of the soil. His hopes for hemp can hardly be overstated, especially for industry-starved rural areas.

“I believe this is going to be a great project for our state, and create a new bumper crop. And perhaps even surpass our oranges,” Massullo said.

But critics hope the promise of a miracle won’t lead lawmakers astray. The plan is still awaiting its first hearing in the Senate.

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