Industrial Hemp Goes From Fringe To Front Burner For Tenn. Legislature

Hemp has not been grown legally in the US since 1958, though some farmers have tried small scale plots. Credit: sareoutreach via Flickr

Hemp has not been grown legally in the US since 1958, though some farmers have tried small scale plots. Credit: sareoutreach via Flickr

The time for growing hemp in Tennessee has come, according to leaders of the state legislature who have recently opened their minds to the agricultural potential. The cousin to cannabis has been legalized for industrial use in nine other states.

Just a few months ago, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey didn’t know the first thing about hemp. He has since been convinced that it could become Tennessee’s next cash crop.

“Farmers out there need something to make money, and hemp is one of them,” he says. “So I’m 100 percent there.”

Hemp – which has long been used for rope making – can also be spun into fabric, processed into soap or even turned into biodiesel. A bill to “decriminalize” the growing of hemp is sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) and Sen. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains), who is a farmer himself.

The plants do have some of the chemical in marijuana that gives users a high – THC – but not nearly as much. House Speaker Beth Harwell says it’s just a matter of educating the public.

“There’s a stigma associated with hemp,” Harwell says. “But the reality is, it’s being very productive in other states. We’re not talking about marijuana here. We’re talking about industrial hemp.”

Hemp remains a controlled substance at the federal level, so there aren’t too many farmers growing it, even in states like Kentucky that have acted in recent years to legalize it. However, the latest Farm Bill working its way through Congress opens the door to hemp production on a wider level.

Still, the hemp bill’s sponsors have some work to do convincing lawmakers like Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) who wants to be sure the THC levels in hemp are as low as he’s been told.

“The downside would be that we grow it on Tennessee farms and young people come and harvest it and dry it and smoke it and get high and drive and kill innocent people,” he says. “The upside is the commercial, economic benefit.”

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