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The state Legislature and the U.S. Congress could both take action to ease restrictions on the production of industrial hemp, unleashing the ability of farmers to grow raw materials used in more than 25,000 products, including textiles, automobiles, furniture, paper, construction and insulation materials.
Industrial hemp is grown in more than 30 countries, but the United States is one of the few nations that imposes restrictions. That’s because hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. Hemp, historically used to make rope, is prized for its oils, seeds and fiber.
In 2014, President Barack Obama signed a farm bill that allowed universities and state departments of agriculture to begin cultivating industrial hemp for limited purposes. Since then, about 30 states have passed legislation to establish hemp research or pilot programs, authorize studies of the hemp industry or establish commercial hemp programs.
Pennsylvania currently allows universities, the state Department of Agriculture or the state to research hemp under an industrial pilot program. The Department of Agriculture has approved 16 research projects, each of which can grow five acres of hemp. None can be sold.
At least 16 other states have legalized industrial help production for commercial purposes within the scope of federal law. This year, farmers in Kentucky will be able to grow and potential sell more than 12,000 acres of industrial hemp valued at $21,000 per acre.
Farmers here in Pennsylvania argue that the state is moving too slowly, restricting hemp growth to the research projects and preventing growers from profiting on the open market.
State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County, said she hopes the state will take action to drop the barriers and allow farmers to grow hemp commercially.
Congress could also loosen federal restrictions and allow production to flourish. U.S. Rep. James Comer, the former Kentucky agriculture secretary who led the push for hemp in that state, is now in Congress. He said he will introduce federal legislation to reclassify hemp so that it’s no longer treated like a drug.
“We may need to do legislation,” state Sen. Schwank said. “I’m hoping the federal government does it.”
Considering the huge economic benefits that could be generated by a product with a minimal amount of THC — the ingredient that creates such a high level of resistance — someone should.