Indiana Hemp Industry Trying To Boost Its Profile

More than a year after Indiana lawmakers legalized a so-called cash crop, the coffers are still empty. Legislation that was signed into law in 2014 approved the commercial growth and research of the versatile industrial hemp plant, which is a non-intoxicating form of cannabis. But, lack of federal approval has stalled the state from moving forward.

Jamie Petty, the founder of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association (INHIA), says the plant could be a boon for Indiana agriculture and manufacturing.

“We have empty factories in Anderson and Kokomo that could be converted,” she says. “It becomes the hemp processing plant.”

Her advocacy group hosted a Hemp History Week expo in Noblesville on June 6 to encourage a state market for hemp. Businesses displayed an array of products with hemp: soap, clothing, paper products, wine, crackers, salad dressings, pet toys and more.

Although the hemp products varied from booth to booth, the vendors share one thing in common: the challenge of obtaining it. They purchase the material from overseas because it’s illegal to produce hemp in the United States. That’s due to a common misperception.

“This is not marijuana, it’s industrial hemp,” Petty says. “It’s not about smoking it. It’s about using it to create materials – textiles or for nutrition.”

Efforts like these are stalled because hemp has been outlawed since the 70’s when Congress bunched it together with its cannabis cousin marijuana.

But, Purdue Agronomy Professor Ron Turco says THC levels – the psychoactive element that produces a high – are very different between hemp and marijuana.

“If you smoked our entire field of industrial hemp, you would get cancer before you high,” Turco says. “There’s just not that much THC there.”

Turco recently received state and federal approval to conduct a three-year study on hemp. His team will research two varieties of the plant to identify its capacity for food and production material.

“We’re basically trying to create an Indiana hemp oil industry is what we’re trying to do,” Turco says. “Right now, they’re crushing seed brought in from Canada. Why shouldn’t we crush Indiana seed for hemp oil?”

Turco’s team is waiting on the seeds to arrive, but he says planting could begin as early as mid-June. In the meantime, another study of hemp oil is set to take place in Indiana.

The Indiana General Assembly tasked an interim study committee this summer with looking into the potential medical benefits of hemp oil. That’s after lawmakers diluted a bill during the 2015 session that could have approved hemp oil treatment trials at universities.

State Representative Don Lehe (R-Brookston), who authored the legislation, says hemp oil doesn’t have the psychoactive elements that medicinal marijuana contains.

“There’s a few kids around the country that have a particular form of epileptic seizures and this extract is the only thing that will benefit these children,” Lehe says.

The bill also clarified that once federal approval is granted, all industrial hemp extracts, including oil, are legal. But, that language was removed following concerns that the THC in hemp oil could become concentrated during the extraction process.

“There was enough interest and enough concern that we were going too far to the medical marijuana side,” Lehe says.

Indiana State Chemist Robert Waltz, whose office is charge of regulating industrial hemp in the state, says the biggest question facing industrial hemp doesn’t concern the plant’s genetics.

“It’s the marketing,” Waltz says. “What do you do with this stuff after you grow it? All of those markets that at one time existed no longer exist. They’ve been replaced by other products.”

However, Petty from INHIA says that market does exist because the U.S. is the largest importer of industrial hemp.