Texas hemp advocates want to see fields of green on farms across the state — and they’re rallying lawmakers to make it happen.
A group of hemp advocates testified Tuesday before the Texas House Agriculture and Livestock Committee about the jobs and economic opportunities that are possible if the state allows Texas farmers to grow the crop. Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant but has low or untraceable amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high.
Hemp products have become a staple at smoothie shops, wellness stores and many nationwide grocery chains. Austin-based Whole Foods carries hemp protein powders and body care items, such as lotions. The lightweight and fibrous crop has been used by home builders, clothing companies and automakers, including BMW. And hemp seeds have even been used as a garnish on cocktails and entrees.
But federal law tossed hemp into the same category as its famous cousin, marijuana, and its connection with the controlled substance spooked some lawmakers.
“Everybody is starting to figure out this is actually a good thing, and it’s not the boogeyman,” said Jim Reaves, the state legislative director of the Texas Farm Bureau.
In his testimony, he said the crop would give farmers another option, especially during tough years for corn, cotton or other Texas crops. The net income that Texas farmers and ranchers receive from commodities has dropped more than 50 percent in the last four years, he said.
The debate over hemp is another example of how lawmakers and industry leaders are trying to reconcile harsh federal drug laws with a growing demand for cannabis-related products — including the ones that don’t give consumers a high. Texas has held the line, even as other states have approved pilot programs to farm industrial hemp. Some states, like Colorado and Maine, have gone further by legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
Texas has allowed very few businesses to touch the plant — even if it has low levels of THC. It has granted three companies licenses to grow the plant and produce a type of cannabis oil that’s used as medicine for Texans with intractable epilepsy.
The federal farm bill in 2014 paved the way toward change by allowing state agricultural departments and universities to run pilot programs that could grow and sell industrial hemp. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — whose home state of Kentucky has become a fast-growing producer of hemp — said he’s optimistic the crop will be legalized in the next federal farm bill. It is expected in the next few months.
About 40 states have passed some form of hemp legislation and 19 states have begun cultivating it, according to Vote Hemp, a national advocacy group. Last year, about 25,713 acres of hemp were grown in the U.S. Colorado had the largest number of acres, followed by Oregon, Kentucky and North Dakota.
On Tuesday, advocates from Texas, Colorado and Kentucky urged the committee not to let Texas fall behind.
Coleman Hemphill, executive director of the Texas Hemp Industry Association, told the committee that he has seen the economic promise and innovative uses of hemp during travels to Kentucky and Oregon. Some companies are coming up with new ways to use the eco-friendly material for disposable cups, grocery bags and construction materials. For example, he said, they’re exploring how it could be used to make straws as Starbucks and other retailers ban plastic straws.
Some of those who spoke Tuesday are part of the American Hemp Campaign. The campaign is run by Vote Hemp and is supported by Texas country legend, Willie Nelson. Nelson, who’s spoken and sung about his support for cannabis, is also in the business. His company, GCH, has a proprietary strain of marijuana and recently launched a hemp-infused coffee.