Industrial hemp industry gets kick-start from oil extract

Industrial hemp conjures images of rope, seeds for your morning smoothie and the quirky Dr. Bronner’s soap, but farmers have discovered an unexpected and potentially lucrative use for the crop: Oil billed as treatment for everything from cancer to autism.

The oil offers a much higher return on investment than converting hemp into more conventional products, growers say.

But while advocates see unlimited potential in industrial hemp, serious challenges remain for the sometimes maligned and often misunderstood plant whose fate is complicated by the national politics of marijuana, its intoxicating cousin.

“The confusion around it has been frustrating,” said Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, a national group that advocates for the legalization of the crop. “Hemp and other varieties of cannabis have been tied together since day one in terms of policy.”

Still, in Oregon — one of about a dozen states with active industrial hemp programs — the industry is taking hold, with 77 people licensed to grow hemp this year compared to 11 last year.

The crop covers an estimated 1,200 acres of farmland — relatively small when compared to Oregon’s overall agriculture industry but notable given the crop’s novelty.

Most producers plan to send at least some of their harvest to processors to extract a non-psychoactive component called cannabidiol, or CBD – a sought-after byproduct for baby boomers looking for relief from aches and pains and parents desperate to treat their children’s epilepsy.

“The only way that we can compete in the hemp industry right now is high-CBD hemp because that can be monetized at the end of the day,” said Jerry Norton, a longtime hemp advocate who is growing the crop on about 100 acres in the Willamette Valley. “There is a big demand for it.”

Yet while the state’s booming – and regulated – market for marijuana takes shape, the long battle for industrial hemp’s legitimacy continues to play out.

Federal legislation two years ago, for instance, cleared the way for limited research and pilot programs run by universities and state agriculture agencies, but the new law is vague on permission for general commercial production. Federal restrictions also have made it difficult for producers to get seeds legally.

And legal experts say shipping oil made from hemp falls in a legal gray area. That’s because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration generally views industrial hemp the same way it does marijuana: as a controlled substance.

Hemp and marijuana are different types of the same species, Cannabis sativa. Hemp has one key distinction: It lacks marijuana’s most coveted component: THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol.

In hemp’s case, the gene that fires up marijuana’s high THC production is essentially turned off. So while hemp’s stalks provide fiber for textiles and its nutty seeds can be added to yogurt, the plant is a lousy choice for people seeking marijuana’s high.

By law, hemp may contain no more than 0.3 percent THC. “You could smoke the whole field,” said Norton, surveying his leafy crop in Marion County. “You’re not going to get high.”

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