Hemp was cultivated in the Jamestown colony in 1619 and was grown and commented on by the likes of George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
In Nebraska, the strain of cannabis was first grown near Fremont in the 1880s, and the state’s farmers quickly became adept at growing hemp crops during World War II, where it was turned into clothing, canvas and rope.
The plant later was classified as a controlled substance and was given up by Nebraska farmers for staple crops such as corn, soybeans and sorghum, as well as specialty crops such as sunflowers and popcorn.
State lawmakers on Monday took another step toward allowing Nebraska farmers to grow industrial hemp once more, advancing a bill (LB657) from Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne that would permit its growth and cultivation here.
Wayne said the bill, which comes on the heels of industrial hemp being legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill, would open a growing industry to Nebraska farmers and potentially spur growth of its processing and manufacturing in the state, creating jobs in towns and cities.
“Hemp production is coming, one way or another, and rather than being out of the business for two to three years, it’s important we get in now,” Wayne said.
The Nebraska Hemp Act would set up licensing and fee requirements for farmers who wish to grow hemp, outline reporting and enforcement requirements by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, and create a hemp checkoff program, similar to the checkoff programs that aid in marketing commodities produced in the state.
Hemp crops must be registered with a GPS location and plants grown must be submitted for testing to determine they contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive drug in marijuana.
Wayne said legalizing industrial hemp was about spurring economic development, not about laying the groundwork for medical or recreational marijuana.
But Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, who led opposition to the bill Monday, said hemp was once “called by another name” — namely marijuana.
“I caution us as we head down this path,” Lowe said. “Agriculture is very important to this state. To say we’re going to live or die by this one crop we have not grown for a long time I don’t believe is true.”
Lowe asserted several times legalizing industrial hemp would result in grow houses popping up in neighborhoods across the state, which would negatively impact Nebraska’s youth. He suggested the state wait until the U.S. Department of Agriculture enacts further guidelines later this year.
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Farmer legislators indicated their support for Wayne’s bill. Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams said hemp production may lag until the state’s manufacturing capabilities ramp up, while Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil said farmers in his south-central Nebraska district were interested in the opportunities industrial hemp created.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a panacea,” Murman said of industrial hemp, commenting on the combination of low commodity prices and high property taxes that are putting a squeeze on the state’s farmers. “I don’t think we’ll get in on the bottom floor, but we’ll be near the bottom floor.”
Lowe, however, was unpersuaded.
He introduced a floor amendment further lowering the amount of THC that could be present in a legal hemp plant to 0.2 percent, down from 0.3 percent.
He said — despite several senators objecting with their own evidence — hemp could be dried and smoked to get high, which would proliferate with acres of the crop growing around the state.
The Kearney senator also said farmers who had reported feeding their livestock hemp witnessed animals born with deformities because of the drug content — an assertion Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue called ridiculous.
“I encourage any farmers who fed their animals ditchweed to get in touch with me,” she said.
Lowe said several times the bill was creating the infrastructure to legalize marijuana in the state, and said he would keep fighting to prevent that from happening.
“The people of this state should not be hoodwinked by the name of hemp,” he said. “People have rebutted that you don’t smoke ditchweed. I read an article where it is the hot new thing they are doing.”
But near the end of Day 59 of the 90-day session, and after almost three hours of debate, Lowe yielded and withdrew his motion, ending what he referred to as “extended debate” during first-round consideration.
LB657 advanced with 37 votes. It will need to pass two more rounds this year.