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Support for Hemp Legalization Taking Root in TN

Bill to establish licensing for growers clears House ag committee. Sponsor says momentum pointing toward ultimate passage.

A bill to legalize the growing and processing of industrial hemp in Tennessee cruised through the state House Agriculture Committee Tuesday.

House Bill 2445 seeks to modify state law to enable farmers to grow cannabis that doesn’t contain enough delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to produce a “high.” The state Department of Agriculture would issue licenses to hemp farmers and certify that the seed they use is not a potentially psychoactive variety.

The bill stipulates that anyone caught growing hemp without official state permission would be subject to criminal prosecution for marijuana production.

Jeremy Faison, a Republican from Cosby who is sponsoring HB2445, said the legislation appears to be rolling toward passage, at least in the House. He attributed the its success — or lack of vocal opposition — to the work hemp legalization advocates have done educating lawmakers about both the plant’s many legally legitimate uses, and its uselessness in getting people stoned.

“When I told everybody at a House Republican Caucus retreat back in September what I was going to do this year, every single person laughed at me,” said Faison. “Glen Casada hee-hawed and said, ‘Your bill’s going to get rolled up in smoke, Jeremy.’ Glen Casada has come full circle and he’s a sponsor now.”

Casada is the House GOP Caucus chairman. Memphis Democrat Larry Miller is also listed as a sponsor. The Senate’s bill is sponsored by Strawberry Plains Republican Frank Niceley. Both speakers of the General Assembly, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and Rep. Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, have indicated they support the legislation.

Typically in states that have discussed legalizing hemp, law enforcement interests have been vocal opponents. Cops often argue that because marijuana and hemp are in the same plant family, they look and grow enough alike that marijuana-prohibition enforcement agents might become dazed and confused trying to determine which varieties are or are not capable of producing altered states of consciousness. Hemp legalization advocates will counter suggestions that growers of the legal variety could use it to camouflage an illicit drug crop by pointing out that cross-pollination would greatly diminish the potency of the illegal marijuana, thus rendering it virtually unmarketable.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation initially opposed hemp legalization, but is now neutral. Faison, who serves as vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said talking the TBI into not fighting the bill “has been my biggest fight.”

“It’s taken a lot work and a lot of education, but people are realizing the goodness of this product,” said Faison. “Every industrialized country in the world is growing hemp — except us.”

Cultivating the cannabis plant has been banned under U.S. law since the 1930s — although the federal government encouraged farmers to grow it in the 1940s to aid in the war effort.

However, buried in the federal farm bill signed into law by President Obama last month is a provision that grants colleges, universities and state agriculture departments permission to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.

According to Vote Hemp, a group that touts itself as “the nation’s leading grassroots hemp advocacy organization,” 20 states in America have to date passed some form of “pro-hemp” legislation, and more than a dozen others are is some stage of loosening restrictions on hemp cultivation or research.

The Hemp legislation in the Tennessee House is next scheduled for a vote in the chamber’s finance committee. If it is approved there it’ll be scheduled for a vote on the House floor.

Faison said he’s confident about the bill’s chances for passage this year. “Anything can fall apart, but right now there is great momentum,” he told TNReport.

Industrial hemp proponents generally advertise that the plant’s capacity for commercial utility and human benefit is vast. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture — the Republican commissioner of which is an outspoken backer of hemp legalization — non-psychoactive cannabis seeds, fibers, oils and mulch are used in more than 25,000 products sold globally. Among them are fabrics, textiles, paper, furniture, auto parts, animal bedding and feed, cosmetics and a range of foods, beverages and nutritional supplements that people consume around the world.

“Because there is no commercial industrial hemp production in the United States, the U.S. market is largely dependent on imports, both as finished hemp-containing products and as ingredients for use in further processing,” according to a Kentucky Ag Department fact sheet. “More than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity. The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not allow industrial hemp production. Current industry estimates report that U.S. retail sales of all hemp-based products may exceed $300 million per year.”

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