Two bills to legalize the cultivation and use of hemp are expected to be introduced to the Idaho Legislature this year.
The bills aren’t expected to get much support, but they should, said Erik Nelson, a former member of the U.S. Army National Guard who was asked to give a presentation Feb. 6 about hemp’s prospects as a crop to the House Agricultural Affairs Committee.
Nelson suffers from a chronic pain disorder called Fibromyalgia from an injury he sustained while on deployment. He began looking into hemp’s medical properties, and has found several other benefits to growing it. Nelson is now working with farmers, small businesses and lobbyist groups to draft proposals for legalizing the use and cultivation of hemp in Idaho.
“I have reached out to two-thirds of the legislators about this and several have been supportive, but some are definitely still hesitant,” Nelson said. “The biggest concern most of them have is they are worried about how it will look to their constituency. They don’t want to look soft on drugs.”
Hemp is a type of cannabis and comes from the same species as marijuana, but it is genetically different. One of the main differences between the two plants is that marijuana contains a high amount of THC – the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects, but hemp by the federal legal definition can’t have a THC level that accounts for more than 3 percent of its dried weight.
“Because of the low percent of THC found in hemp, you would have to smoke 10 cigarettes of the plant at once, eat seven grams of dry leaves and drink concentrated oil from the plant to get the same effect as smoking marijuana,” Nelson said. “It is practically impossible to abuse hemp to get high.”
Despite the genetic differences between the two plants, several legislators don’t differentiate between hemp and marijuana. Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale and chairman of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, invited Nelson to the capitol to teach about hemp after watching a presentation he prepared.
“I knew nothing about hemp before,” Boyle said. “I always thought it was marijuana.”
Hemp can be used to make paper, animal feed, flour, plastics, biofuel, to stop soil erosion and to clean up disaster areas.
Hemp would help Idaho by giving farmers a new crop to rotate and a way to clean up land that can’t be used because of heavy metals or salt in the soil, said Trevor Hill, a Twin Falls resident who runs a 30-acre hemp farm in Huntington, Ore.
“I have friends who are farmers in Idaho and the general feeling is there is an interest in hemp, but the assumption is we are still a ways off,” Hill said. “But what I point people to is this is not a liberal or conservative cause. It should be a bipartisan cause because of what it can do for the economy.”
Some legislators who have looked into allowing farmers to grow hemp are intrigued by the opportunity it would give Idaho farmers, but more research needs to be done, said Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee.
“Idaho County Commissioner Mark Frei is working on draft legislation and has shown it to the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association and I want to see this looked into going forward,” Troy said. “But we need to make our decision based on research from our land grant university (University of Idaho).”
A 1927 Idaho law bans the cultivation of all parts of any cannabis plant with any amount of THC. To make it legal to grow hemp, Idaho would have to change its law to differentiate between hemp and marijuana And legislators would have to pass a law saying the University of Idaho and the Idaho Department of Agriculture can develop a pilot program for the crop and to start licensing farmers to grow it.
As of 2015, 32 states differentiated between hemp and marijuana, 28 states had hemp crops, and seven states had farmers licensed to grow hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Western states with hemp crops include Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Montana and Colorado.
Hemp seeds are 34 percent protein with all 20 amino acids, which help to keep livestock healthy and can lead to higher milk yields in dairy animals, Nelson said.
Hemp also has dense, rigid fibers that can serve thousands of industrial applications, according to Frei.
Columbus sailed to the Americas with sails made of hemp, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag from hemp and hemp can be used to create clothes, shoes, furniture, home accessories and building material, according to Frei.
“Look at Tennessee, Utah and Kentucky, these are pretty conservative states that are doing this,” Hill said. “All of these states are allowing industrial hemp because they are going into it with an economic viewpoint and understanding the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana.”
Hemp farms in Kentucky have raised as much as $33,000 per acre by harvesting seeds for hemp seed oil and meal and straw to create fiber products, Nelson said.
Hill makes about $10,000 per acre from his farm.
“It is a good mixed-use crop that farmers can rotate, but it isn’t without its risks,” Hill said. “When comparing it to other crops for farmers who say hay prices are too low, hemp is one of those crops that you can’t get crop insurance on. There is just no actuary data on hemp so there is a little more risk early on.”
But Idaho farmers still say they would like the option to grow hemp. The Idaho Farm Bureau said it supports the cultivation and production of industrial grade hemp, but doesn’t plan to be a part of bringing any bill forward this year.
“We been supportive of it, but other issues that have come before the state like the use of CBD (an anti-inflammatory found in hemp) oil for medicine have not been viewed favorably so we don’t have any intention of bringing forth a bill,” said John Thompson, director of public relations for the Idaho Farm Bureau. “I don’t want to speculate, but right now I don’t think there is the political appetite to pursue this.”
Nelson said two bills will emerge from groups he is working with this year. One will differentiate between hemp and marijuana and legalize the importation of hemp for products such as lotion, something Idaho businesses are already doing. The other, a bill to allow the University of Idaho and Department of Agriculture to develop a pilot program for hemp crops, is expected to be proposed in March, Nelson said.
“I know there are several farmers struggling to get work or find profitability and I think this would be a good win for them,” Nelson said. “We’ve known about the functionality of this crop for a long time, but people are going to have to get involved and reach out to their legislators to let them know they think this is good because legislators are worried.”