Recreational marijuana legalization may make more headlines, but hemp could become one of New York’s biggest crops if state lawmakers facilitate the industry, leading hemp experts say.
Last month, Congress set the stage for states to create their own hemp industries, with the 2018 farm bill’s passage.
The law reclassifies hemp as a crop, not a controlled substance like a street drug, making the U.S. Department of Agriculture the plant’s primary regulator.
Hemp is cannabis, the same plant as marijuana, but hemp contains 0.3 percent or less of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the primary cannabis chemical that produces a high.
New York has already been a leader among states in pushing the bounds of limited legal hemp cultivation, under a 2014 U.S. farm bill provision allowing states to authorize hemp research and experimentation.
But competition will soon abound, with the overall U.S. hemp market projected to at least triple to $2.5 billion by 2022. That estimate, from cannabis market researcher New Frontier Data, includes $1.3 billion in sales from cannabidiol, or CBD, alone.
The non-psychoactive chemical has shown medicinal promise in some studies for pain, inflammation, psychiatric conditions and alcohol and opiate use disorders and many other ailments.
More than 80 years of restrictive laws have squelched American hemp production. But demand is robust – the U.S. imports the most hemp in the world – given the crop’s versatility.
Hemp’s long and growing list of uses includes nutrition, body care, paper, textiles, building materials, fuel, bioplastics, bio-composites, industrial sealants and coatings, biomedicine, electrical energy storage and nanotechnologies.
“We really only are limited by our imagination and initiative” with hemp’s potential, said Erica McBride Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association, an industry group. “If all the pieces come together, hemp could explode and become one of the biggest crops in the country.”
The new federal farm bill gives state agriculture departments primary authority for hemp oversight. But the USDA is currently crafting minimum hemp regulatory requirements, and the agency must sign off on state regulations to ensure they dovetail with federal standards.
CBD is another matter. It’s regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which still bans its use except for in one FDA-approved epilepsy drug, though unauthorized CBD products have exploded across America of late.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently expressed an openness to potentially allowing CBD and other cannabis-derived compounds besides THC in foods and supplements.
Already the ball may be rolling for strong hemp and CBD industries in New York. New York ranked fifth among states, with 2,000 experimental hemp acres under cultivation as of 2017.
But to stay out front, state legislators will need to pass one or more laws that promote processing, manufacturing, storing, transporting and growing hemp, said Joy Beckerman, president of the board for the Hemp Industries Association, a trade group.
“We’re asking farmers to grow a hemp crop for which there’s very little infrastructure, and we’re asking investors to invest in infrastructure for which there’s very little crop,” Beckerman said.
Regulated correctly, hemp could become the seventh- to 10th-most cultivated crop in the state, said Larry Smart, director of Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science.
Smart thinks 8,000 to 10,000 hemp acres could be under cultivation in New York by 2022, up from perhaps 2,000 to 2,500 acres in 2018. Around 8,000 to 10,000 acres would rank hemp somewhere between cabbage, sweet corn, potatoes and tomatoes, which are respectively seventh through 10th in acreage.
Land devoted to the state’s struggling dairy industry takes up the most space in New York, followed by grain-corn, hay, cattle, apples and flowers.
“Hemp will offer a viable alternative to farmers, but it’s going to be a major switch for dairy growers in particular,” Smart said. “It’s not an easy transition to switch to hemp from dairy.”
To promote hemp farming and a full industry, experts said that state lawmakers must:
award grants for hemp research, cultivation, production, including $5 million that’s long been promised for processors;
avoid tight regulations, such as limiting the production of certain hemp products, the types of stores and settings in which hemp and CBD can be sold, and requiring excessive labeling;
let businesses from other states grow, produce and sell hemp and CBD in New York; and don’t limit hemp and CBD produced in other states from being sold;
amend laws as necessary, including clearly defining hemp by specifying a THC level of 0.3 percent or less, to decriminalize and differentiate hemp as a crop compared with illicit drugs.
“Coming out of prohibition, we’re way behind other industrialized countries with hemp,” said attorney Shawn Hauser of Vicente Sederberg, of Denver, a leading hemp and marijuana law firm. But, “I’m optimistic that we’re going to do it right.”