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Legislators back industrial hemp bill

A road sign in the town of Alto pays tribute to the hemp industry that played a vital role in Fond du Lac County during the war time years. Hemp plants in Waupun, Alto and Brandon churned out hemp-based products for the war effort overseas. Photo By Colleen Kottke
A road sign in the town of Alto pays tribute to the hemp industry that played a vital role in Fond du Lac County during the war time years. Hemp plants in Waupun, Alto and Brandon churned out hemp-based products for the war effort overseas. Photo By Colleen Kottke

MADISON

State lawmakers have introduced a bill to create a state licensing process for the production of industrial hemp in Wisconsin.

Assembly Bill 215 was formally introduced on May 14 by Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo), along with 23 co-sponsors. If passed, the bill would allow for the farming, production and sale of industrial hemp in the Badger State.

By legalizing the crop, Considine said a revitalized industrial hemp industry could provide significant economic benefits to farmers and the state’s economy.

“Hemp has a long history of agricultural production in North America, including right here in Wisconsin,” Considine said. “Our state’s hemp industry thrived back during World War I and II, but disappeared in the 1950s due to post-war market forces and misconceptions about its use.”

In 2014, President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill into law, which includes a provision authorizing state agriculture departments or institutions of higher learning to grow industrial hemp for research purposes if the state allows the growing of industrial hemp. Already 22 states including Illinois, Indiana and Michigan have passed the new “hemp amendment” legislation.

“Given that so many other states now have statutes supporting industrial hemp for commercial or research purposes, it is critical that Wisconsin be proactive on this issue,” said Considine, adding that AB 215 bill parallels federal regulations.

According to AB 215, the bill would require the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to issue licenses that authorize the growing and processing of industrial hemp. Individuals applying for a license would have to pass a criminal background check and pay a fee of no more than $150.

The hemp amendment in the Farm Bill defines industrial hemp as being distinct from marijuana, which is subject to prohibition under the Controlled Substances Act. The amendment defines industrial hemp as having no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Full scale production of hemp falls short due to the plant’s status as a controlled substance, thanks to its association with its cousin marijuana. A proposed federal bill may redeem its reputation. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in the House and the Senate earlier this year. If passed, the bill would remove all federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp, and remove its classification as a controlled substance.

But until then, Considine said it’s important to educate the public about hemp.

“I think we might see some pushback from ultra conservatives who still associate hemp with marijuana. But I don’t think that’s a big number, especially among the people who are “in the know” about agriculture,” Considine said. “While hemp and marijuana come from the same plant species, their genetic makeup and production are very different. Hemp can’t be used for mind-altering or medicinal purposes.”

Boon to economy

Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau), who serves with Considine on the Assembly Committee on Agriculture says the introduction of industrial hemp into the marketplace would be a boon to the state’s economy.

“The fundamental strength in any sort of economic system – particularly in agriculture – is to have a diverse base. That’s one of the reasons Wisconsin ag is so robust,” Danou said. “And in the midst of a budget deficit and lagging job growth…industrial hemp is an ideal opportunity to improve the state’s fiscal situation.”

Danou estimates that the U.S. market for imported hemp products was $36.9 million in 2013 — a six-fold increase from 2005.

“Clearly, industrial hemp has major potential to build and strengthen Wisconsin’s economy and create jobs in rural communities,” he said.

Danou also pointed out that Wisconsin has a substantial fiber industry in its paper mills. Non-wood fibers like flax and hemp have been used in papermaking for centuries. Hemp, a rapidly renewable resource, could find its place as an environmentally sound fiber blend.

“One of the challenges for our paper industry is finding additional sources of fiber,” Danou said. “In the northern part of Wisconsin we’re seeing parcelization, and it’s becoming more difficult for some of our paper mills to acquire the necessary wood pulp. (Hemp production) would provide those additional sources for the Wisconsin fiber industry as well.”

Considine says the fight to influence the lobby for marijuana prohibition in the 1930s may have stemmed from hemp’s potential to serve as a threat to the commercial interests in the timber and fiber industry.

“The lobby from southern states was huge and they made sure hemp wasn’t going to compete with cotton,” Considine said. “I think that rivalry’s gone now and it’s time to move ahead.”

Diverse markets

While the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of hemp products, it is the only industrialized country that outlaws hemp production. According to the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), the American hemp industry generates sales of $450 million a year, with 25 percent of sales generated from food and body care products with the rest from a wide variety of goods including clothing, auto and airplane parts, building materials and more.

“But since the cultivation of hemp is illegal in the United States under federal anti-drug laws, all hemp and hemp parts (fiber, oil and seed) used to make these products have to be imported,” said Irwin Goldman, professor and chair of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Horticulture at UW-Madison.

Considine said that one-third of Manitoba’s ag production is from the hemp plant. The renaissance of the hemp market in Canada began soon after the country lifted a 60-year ban and commercial cultivation of hemp was authorized in 1998, according to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Because of changes in legislation and regulations, and through market development funding, hemp farming is now a thriving, commercial success.

While the strong fiber derived from the stalk of the hemp plant has a variety of uses, the seed is also highly coveted. Whole hemp seed is composed of approximately 45 percent oil, 35 percent protein and 10 percent carbohydrates and fiber, according to HIA. As a result of the nutritional and health benefits of the seed, many new products have found their way into the global market.

A report by the Congressional Research Service notes that the global market for hemp is estimated to consist of more than 25,000 different products. Farmers in Canada currently profit $800 an acre, three times the value of canola, which is one of Canada’s more lucrative crops.

Growing support

The North American Industrial Hemp Council has been leading a nationwide effort to educate government officials and the public about the agricultural benefits of re-establishing the use of industrial hemp, and several states including Vermont, Missouri, North Dakota, Hawaii, and Colorado have either passed legislation or are considering legislation to permit research into the viability and economic potential of industrial hemp production in the U.S. and the planting of test plots using modern agricultural techniques.

Kara O’Connor, government relations director, said the Wisconsin Farmers Union has joined all major agricultural associations in Wisconsin in supporting legislation to permit research and test plots in Wisconsin.

“Industrial hemp is a legitimate agricultural fiber crop, that got a bad name because of its THC-containing second cousin,” O’Connor said. “Wisconsin Farmers Union would like to see farmers have additional opportunities to diversify their operations or develop a niche by growing industrial hemp.”

Casey Langan, spokesman for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation said its membership has not taken a stance on the issue.

“Over the past 15 years, variations of bills regarding industrial hemp have been taken up by legislators,” Langan said. “Until our members see it as something they want to give us direction on policy-wise, it’s a neutral issue.”

Considine says there is bi-partisan support for AB 215 and believes a Republican lawmaker may introduce a similar bill.

“I don’t know whether it’s a Democratic or Republican bill that’s going to be passed; I don’t care as long as something happens,” Considine said. “I think the time is right for it to happen.”

What’s next?

Following its introduction, AB 215 was sent to the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations. The proposed bill must get the green light from this committee before it can move to the floor of the Assembly for a full vote.

By Colleen Kottke June 12, 2015

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