Nebraska lawmakers tout benefits of hemp

8/1/2014 6:30 PM
By Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Lawmakers are expected to debate again next year whether Nebraska should allow expanded research and medical access for hemp, a plant cousin of marijuana.

Advocates for the crop gathered at the Capitol on Friday and briefly raised an American flag made of hemp fibers. Supporters are attempting to elevate the hemp flag over every state capitol as part of a campaign to promote the product. On July 4, 2013, the flag flew over the U.S. Capitol.

Hemp is a close plant cousin to marijuana, with only a tiny fraction of the THC chemical that produces marijuana's high.

More than 25,000 products are made from hemp fiber, seeds, oils and the interior of the stalk, according to the Congressional Research Service. The list includes fabrics, yarns, paper, carpeting, home furnishings, auto parts, animal feed, food and beverages, lotions and industrial oils.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue said she's working on legislation for next year that would allow for increased research and access to a low-potency extract from hemp leaves as a treatment for epileptic seizures. Crawford also has introduced an interim study to explore the options, with a hearing set for later this year.

Crawford introduced a similar measure earlier this year, but withdrew it amid concerns that it ran afoul of federal law. The type of hemp oil used for treating the seizures is classified as an illegal drug, which prevents patients from getting access, she said. Crawford said she sent a letter Friday to every member of Nebraska's congressional delegation, urging them to support loosening the restrictions.

Federal rules "still block growth and development of the hemp industry," Crawford said. "Nebraska and other states can only go so far before we bump into federal restrictions."

Senators and Gov. Dave Heineman approved a law this year that will let the University of Nebraska grow industrial hemp for research purposes. The law was passed in response to this year's federal Farm Bill, which allowed for hemp production at universities and agriculture departments in states that consent. Nebraska is one of a dozen states that have approved industrial hemp legislation.

Sen. Norm Wallman of Cortland, who sponsored the Nebraska law, said hemp can serve as a good rotational crop that uses relatively little water and needs no pesticides to grow.

"I believe there's a market for this product, and I'd like to see Nebraska jump in at the beginning — not be a follower," said Wallman, a farmer. "This can be a real win-win situation."

During debate this year, a few senators questioned whether the crop could open the door to legalizing marijuana or make it easier to secretly grow the drug. Wallman said the two are different, and growing hemp next to marijuana would ruin a marijuana crop. The plants would cross-pollinate, reducing the amount of THC in the marijuana.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is working with the university to develop detailed rules and regulations for the experiments, said Bobbie Kriz-Wickham, the department's assistant director. Kriz-Wickham said the regulations have to be in place within a year of the law taking effect.

Once the rules are in place, University of Nebraska researchers will import hemp seeds from abroad for research in a greenhouse, said Jason Feldman, who leads the Nebraska chapter of the Hemp Industries Association.

Feldman said the work could answer questions about the best times to grow hemp in Nebraska, ideal soil conditions and other factors that might help farmers.

"The more focus we have on this, the sooner we can create a variety that suitable for our climate, the sooner we can have a crop in the ground that's amazing," he said.

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