Politics & Government

Lawmakers pitch Georgia industrial hemp

ATLANTA -- Nearly half the country is taking a new interest in industrial hemp, a straight-laced cousin to marijuana that was long used for rope and fabric. Now, a group of Georgia lawmakers wants to give it a try, too.

“Looking at the history of Georgia, how hemp was used back in the day for making clothes and stuff like that, I thought it was a great idea,” said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.

He’s the sole Democrat to sign House Bill 704 by John Pezold, R-Fortson, as filed April 2, the last day of the annual legislative session.

“Industrial hemp is not marijuana,” Pezold said.

It is a plant in the cannabis family that is so low in psychoactive THC that it doesn’t produce much of a high. But it’s been long banned under the same federal rules that criminalize marijuana.

Pezold said his bill is modeled on a 2013 Kentucky law that allowed the cultivation of industrial hemp, if the federal government would allow it. Kentucky’s rule became practical in 2014, when the federal farm bill authorized states to license pilot industrial hemp operations.

“We’ve got some farmland and a great university system, and we could do some great research on this plant,” he said.

The three-page bill directs the state Department of Agriculture to set up a licensing system for pilot industrial hemp.

Georgia’s Department of Agriculture will study Pezold’s proposal in the coming months, a spokeswoman said.

The bill “should not be controversial,” Pezold said.

But for now, industrial hemp is a “niche” crop in the U.S., said Eric Steenstra, executive director of the national Hemp Industries Association.

Common hemp products in the United States include hemp seed food and soap made with imported seeds.

But federal law banning cannabis long ago killed industrial-scale hemp demand, he said. It’s not traded on U.S. commodity markets.

Some old-time farmers in hemp centers like Kentucky can remember growing the plant for rope and fabric during World War II, Steenstra said, but that kind of expertise is now rare.

And even if a farmer could plant thousands of acres of hemp, it’s not exactly clear where to find customers. The evolution of a wholesale market “is going to take some time,” Steenstra said.

His association is watching the U.S. Congress closely for moves to liberalize industrial hemp growing laws.

If that happens, “hemp will once again be a major crop,” Steenstra said.

It can be used in products from fine fabric to a lighter-weight fiberglass replacement in car doors, he said. Canada already grows industrial hemp.

Indeed, some companies and universities already are working on industrial hemp breeds that could suit the U.S. market.

Twenty-two states have enacted industrial hemp laws, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. The most modest set up studies of the industrial hemp industry.

The cannabis debate in Georgia has for nearly two years been dominated by a medical marijuana proposal authored by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. He wants the state to allow growing a kind of cannabis that’s used in places like Colorado to make medicine to treat pediatric seizures and other disorders.

Peake said he supports Pezold’s bill.

A pediatric seizure medicine developed in Colorado called Charlotte’s Web is so low in THC that it is considered hemp, Peake said.

He would like that liquid to be available to Georgians at home.

“That’s why I’m saying I think it (Pezold’s bill) moves the ball in the right direction,” Peake said.

Beverly goes much further.

“Expanding medical marijuana, at least the whole marijuana industry, is probably not a bad thing for Georgia. If we can get into the industrial aspect of it, maybe it takes us a step closer to just legalizing it,” Beverly said.

The next opportunity for a hearing on Pezold’s Georgia bill starts with the next state legislative session in 2016.

To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail mlee@macon.com.