Agricultural experts said that markets for hemp — which is derived from strains of the cannabis sativa plant with low amounts of the psychoactive substance in marijuana known as THC — are new in the United States and that cultivation would present lots of unknowns for farmers. Legal hemp would have a THC content of 3 percent or less.
Law enforcement officials complain that they can’t tell the difference between hemp and marijuana and would need more funds.
Mississippi is one of only three states where hemp cultivation is illegal. The other 47 states have legalized it for commercial, research, or pilot programs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will present regulations governing hemp cultivation nationally within the next couple of months after the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill authorized the growing and sale of hemp.
Hemp can be cultivated for its fiber, which can be used in insulation, rope, textiles, and other products. The seeds are also a good source of protein and can be eaten by humans or used for animal feed. The flowers of the plant can be used for cannabidiol, or CBD oil production that has benefits still being studied by scientists, including those at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Larry Walker is the director of the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. He pointed to Kentucky, which was one of the early adopters of a pilot hemp cultivation program, as having advantages since hemp cultivation is very similar to a cash crop already grown in the Bluegrass State, tobacco.
Kentucky has issued about 110 processor licenses in 2019 and the industry is expected to create about 900 full-time jobs.
“Tobacco growers can do a lot of things as far as planting and processing that are very similar with hemp,” Walker said. “They’ve had great success, but some of the numbers there are quite inflated.”
Wes Burger is the associate director of the Forest and Wildlife Research Center at Mississippi State University. He said hemp has the potential to be a competitive crop in the state’s agricultural mix, but that isn’t a silver bullet or a path to prosperity.
He also said there will need to be markets set up for hemp and seed testing to find varieties that would grow best in Mississippi’s climate and soils. He also said there are no legal herbicides or pesticides for hemp cultivation, which could make it problematic. Also, the thick fibrous nature of the stems that makes for strong products also can damage agricultural equipment such as combines.
According to Burger, there are three types of cultivation. Many farmers grow hemp for the seeds and those type of farms will favor plants with some spacing between them. Fiber farmers will want their plants to grow closely together and be taller with fewer stems to maximize the amount of fiber harvested. Those wanting to grow plants for CBD production would grow them like vegetables such as cucumbers and the plants would be short and bushy.
John Dowdy, who is the director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, said that hemp cultivation would add problems for law enforcement since it requires a laboratory to determine whether the THC content crosses the 3 percent threshold.
He said that those costs could add up to $500,000 per year for the Department of Public Safety and that the DPS is already overwhelmed trying to stop Mexican heroin and methamphetamines and Chinese fentanyl.
The final meeting of the Hemp Cultivation Task Force is November 20 and the group will finalize their recommendations to the legislature, which is due in December.