Hemp: Savior Crop or Pandora’s Box?


by Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor

Florida farmers, besieged by citrus diseases and devastating hurricanes for the past few years, are desperately seeking an alternative crop to shore up citrus and timber.

They may have found one in industrial hemp. A form of the cannabis plant, hemp is an excellent source of fiber, food products, construction products and medicines, and is the much-anticipated and much-touted crop that may fill farmers’ depleted coffers.

The passage of the Federal Farm Bill in 2018 and the [pending at time of publication]“hemp bill” in Florida bring industrial hemp, long outlawed with its cousin marijuana, back into the cozy company of legal crops. Depending on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s acceptance of a plan from the Florida Department of Agriculture, hemp plants could be back in the ground in Florida come the 2020 growing season.

It’s not really a new option, as hemp was a staple crop in Florida for decades, and around the world for thousands of years, mainly producing fibers for ropes and fabrics. But the cultivation of hemp became illegal in the United States in 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act, which lumped hemp in with marijuana, was passed. The death knell was the passage of the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which categorized all varieties of cannabis, regardless of the THC level, as marijuana, and classified them as Schedule I controlled substances. It was many decades before the negative view of hemp, which by federal law may not contain more than 0.3 percent of THC (the component in marijuana that produces a high), began to change.

Formerly used mainly for its fibers, today hemp seeds and oil are the prize, hailed as “super-foods” and used in a wide range of edible products. The greatest value of the plant lies in the cannabidiol (CBD) compound, which doesn’t produce a high, but is being marketed as everything from pain relief to skin cream to nearly magical cures for a multitude of conditions.

In the past decade, more than 40 states enacted laws allowing studies of the industrial hemp industry, and began research programs on industrial hemp. In 2014, in reaction to lobbyists and proponents of hemp, the federal government authorized states to conduct hemp pilot programs; Florida created one in 2017. The University of Florida IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project and Florida A&M University have teams, based at research centers from Homestead to Quincy, studying all aspects of hemp production in Florida’s wide range of environments.

However, some worry that Florida may be rushing too quickly into the world of hemp. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still considers cannabis and all cannabis products to be Schedule 1 substances, thus against the law. Possession of hemp was still illegal in Florida as of July 1. “It is still illegal to grow hemp in Florida without a permit,” Zachary Brym, assistant professor of agronomy at the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center, said at an Agricultural Policy Outlook Conference earlier this year. Issues such as the difficulty in distinguishing between plants that are grown for CBD and THC; the need to police farmers and their crops; hemp’s initial need for a lot of water and other concerns have been raised by experts. The university pilot studies are still examining the costs of growing hemp, the best fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals to use; the expectations of hemp’s market value and when a crop would reach a break-even point. Additionally, they are conducting studies for risk of invasiveness. “There are going to be a lot of challenges for growing hemp in Florida, particularly because most varieties grow in northern climates,” Brym said.

Hemp/CBD primer

Hemp and marijuana: Two distinct forms of the cannabis plant. The difference? Industrial hemp must have no more than 0.3 percent delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana has more THC than hemp, thus ingesting it can get you high.

Uses for hemp: As a fiber: Documented history of use for thousands of years in making ropes, textiles such as canvas, clothes, paper and more. As a food: Hemp is loaded with protein and fatty acids, thus it can be used as a supplement to any food dish.

CBD: Cannabidiol, extracted from hemp, has been growing in popularity over the past decade as a relief for pain, inflammation, anxiety and stress, and is used in shampoos and lotions and in a wide variety of foods.

THC: Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol is the compound in cannabis that gets people high. It is only present in trace amounts in industrial hemp.

Hemp oil: Made from hemp seeds.

CBD oil: Made from leaves, resin or the flowering tops of the plant.

Is it legal? In Florida, recreational marijuana is not legal. CBD and medical THC (prescribed by doctors to treat chronic pain, cancer, epilepsy and other conditions) are legal. However, the federal government still labels marijuana as an illegal drug.

Hemp, on the other hand, is legal on the federal level as of 2018, but the sale and distribution remain illegal in Florida until Gov. DeSantis signs the Senate bills 7102 and 1020, which passed the House and Senate on May 1 and 2. The bills would set up hemp cultivation, sale and distribution in the state.

Regulation: Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, says the passage of the legislation will open up a multi-billion-dollar industry, which will need rules, regulations and inspectors.

History of Hemp in Florida

Hemp, once a common crop in the U.S., has been grown around the world for thousands of years, used as a source of fiber for ropes and textiles such as canvas, boat sails, clothes, paper and more. Today, about 30 countries legally grow hemp.

1937 Marijuana Tax Act passes, making the cultivation of hemp illegal in the U.S.

1970 Federal Controlled Substances Act categorizes all varieties of cannabis, regardless of the THC level, as marijuana, and classifies them as Schedule I controlled substances.

2014 Florida authorizes an institution of higher education or a state department of agriculture to grow or cultivate industrial hemp under certain conditions.

2017 Florida creates the industrial hemp pilot projects.

2018 Federal Agricultural Act allows hemp to be cultivated under certain conditions, and removes hemp-derived products from Schedule I of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Defines hemp as the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, containing a THC concentration that does not exceed 0.3 percent.

2018 Marijuana, identified in the U.S. drug laws as cannabis having high levels of THC, still has a federal Schedule I classification that lumps it in with methamphetamine, cocaine, methadone and fentanyl, a much talked-about drug in the current opioid crisis.

2018 Florida elects Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, a former medical marijuana lobbyist.

2019 Commissioner names Holly Bell Director of Cannabis for Florida.

2019 Legislation is pending in Florida to set up hemp cultivation, sale and distribution in the state.

Q+A with Holly Bell

Key to the future of hemp in Florida is Holly Bell, recently named Director of Cannabis by Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, a former medical marijuana lobbyist. Bell has been charged with overseeing the nascent industrial hemp industry, in addition to licensing marijuana products and dispensaries. “Holly was instrumental in helping start up Tennessee’s industrial hemp program, where she heard from farmers who needed an alternative for the future,” Fried said when she announced Bell’s appointment. “Holly’s experience in finance, and knowledge of managing programs, make her a bold choice—and the right choice—to help build the future of cannabis in Florida.”

Bell sat down recently with Edible Orlando to chat about her appointment.

How did you arrive at this particular job at this particular time?

This role is a natural fit, because it combines so many parts of my life. I grew up on a farm in Indiana, got my BS in Agricultural Economics from Purdue and ended up in banking in Tennessee. My specialty for 25 years was entertainment banking, and I got into advising people who were in the cannabis industry. Banks were not very eager to lend money to people in the cannabis business. My first business plan was for someone who wanted to move to Colorado and get into the cannabis business there, where it was legal. I began helping people in Tennessee in the hemp business after it became legal there. I know how to start new businesses, how to figure out a business plan and get it approved, and know about working with hemp farmers. I grew up in an era when cannabis use was not stigmatized, and I was curious how this plant got on a list with heroin. I did the research and found the science. I helped start a political action group in Tennessee. During this time I met the commissioner [Nikki Fried]. When I saw she was going to run for commissioner in Florida, I reached out, and she asked if I would join her.

What does your job entail?

Among many things, our office is responsible for educating the people of Florida about industrial hemp. We have to reverse decades of negative image, in which the difference between marijuana and hemp had become unclear. It’s challenging to champion something that has been vilified for so long. The answer is to call people to the table and encourage them to hear, not just listen. In order to do that successfully, we have to target specific groups, and we started with law enforcement. We explained the law, and what the federal farm bill did, and methodically began to explain what we were doing. We wanted to get the facts out. That’s what my first few weeks consisted of. I talk to the person who is the most adamantly against hemp, and ask them to just humor me. If you have an hour, I tell them, watch a documentary called The Scientist on YouTube, about Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist who researched cannabis for half a century and discovered its active compound. You will understand why this plant is important. Or, watch the Ted Talk Charlotte’s Web, about CBD oil. I dare them to tell me that this isn’t something we need to consider. And, I remind people that alcohol once was illegal.

Is this the crop that saves Florida’s agricultural industry?

I don’t see hemp replacing any crops, but complementing them, helping farmers who want to add a crop. Citrus farmers came to me to talk about diversifying, and under the current circumstances that would protect them. I see hemp as an alternative that could help struggling farmers. Hemp was grown in Florida for decades before it was outlawed. It will mean hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue for the state. It could also bring younger people into agriculture. Because Florida’s climate can sustain several crops a year, people interested in the industry will need to consider building high-tech processing centers to keep up. We’re talking millions of dollars. The biggest problem was not getting the infrastructure in place for the processing and manufacturing. It’s got to all be going at the same time.

What parts of Florida will sustain a hemp crop?

Florida’s climate is very different from other places growing and selling hemp. The University of Florida’s IFAS division is conducting a variety of trials across the state to find marketable hemp that grows well in Florida’s diverse soils and climates. There are also people going to several parallels outside of Florida, to bring back the knowledge of what strains grow best in what environments.

How can the state ensure marijuana isn’t growing among the hemp plants?

Fibrous hemp is very tall and distinctive, and doesn’t look like marijuana. But the only way to distinguish between the shorter cannabis plants grown for CBD and plants grown for THC is by testing for the percentage of THC. This will create jobs for the state, as the department will need to hire inspectors to go out and test the plants.

What’s next?

Once Gov. DeSantis signs the bill we must submit a plan within 90 days to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We are working on this plan, holding workshops all over Florida. We’ve also been talking to other states, researching how well their programs worked. The plan must include methods of testing and certification, plans for inspections to ensure farmers are growing the correct plants and measures for farmers who violate the rules. If the plan is not approved, then Commissioner Fried can work with the cabinet to provide recommendations for a new plan.