The Rens Hemp Company in Brandon, Wisconsin, was the largest legal hemp company in the nation following World War II. They closed their doors in 1958. Hemp had remained illegal federally until an amendment to the 2014 farm bill allowed for some limited production in states that chose to run pilot programs.
Since then, activists like Ken Anderson of Original Green Distribution have been working tirelessly to return this crop to the state of Wisconsin. This month, the Wisconsin legislature sent an industrial hemp bill to Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s desk after it unanimously passed both chambers of the legislature. Once signed, the bill would effectively legalize the production and distribution of industrial hemp.
The Jack News talked with Sen. Patrick Testin, author of the Senate version, about the legislation after it had first passed committee. Sen. Testin’s responses are edited for space and clarity.
Differences between hemp and marijuana
The Jack News: Could you give our readers a brief explanation of the differences between hemp and marijuana? What kinds of products is hemp used for?
Sen. Patrick Testin: The bill that we actually wrote to bring back industrial hemp to the state of Wisconsin was an idea brought to me by Wisconsin Rep. Jesse Kremer. When he proposed it to me, my first reaction was that he was talking about marijuana. And I didn’t want to be a part of that. And that’s been the biggest challenge that we’ve faced: Trying to educate our colleagues. People associated marijuana with hemp and hemp as marijuana.
Although similar, the two are vastly different. They come from the same family, but what separates the two is the concentration of THC within the plant. For a marijuana plant, you have anywhere from 5 percent all the way up to 15 percent, and some strands up to 20 or 25 percent. With industrial hemp, the THC concentration is so low, about 0.3 percent. It can’t cause the psychoactive high effect from THC. And the plant itself is very versatile.
The state of Wisconsin at one time was one of the largest producers of industrial hemp in the country. Unfortunately, due to its similarities to marijuana, it’s been banned for several decades now. Thanks to the 2014 farm bill that passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama, states may reintroduce this plant. Since 2014, 31 states have reintroduced hemp into their fields, including our neighbors in Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Hemp can be used for a number of different applications. What most people are probably familiar with is the textile industry, in order to make clothing, rope. But there are so many new uses in building materials, in making plastic stronger, with fibers used as a replacementsfor Kevlar, and for bullet proof vests, fire retardant materials, insulation, car brake pads, even batteries. Then there are the dietary supplements. Hemp seeds and hemp fibers have a lot of protein and omega 3S. There are thousands of different applications from this plant.
The licensing requirements to grow hemp in Wisconsin
The Jack News: How different are the licensing requirements under this bill for growing hemp compared to licensing requirements farmers may need for growing other crops in Wisconsin?
Sen. Patrick Testin: Our Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection will issue licenses. And individuals applying for licenses will have to go through a background check to make sure there’s no history of any drug charges or criminal activity, and then they also have to provide the geo-location coordinates for where the plants are going to be grown.
And this was done primarily to assuage a lot of the concerns that the Department of Justice had that some of our colleagues had, so we put that in there in good faith to get the ball moving. So we’re confident that once this thing goes through and becomes law that the department will set up the rules so that by spring of 2018, we’ll have farmers ready to go and start growing industrial hemp again.
The Jack News: In this bill, industrial hemp is defined as cannabis sativa with no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis. What process did you use to arrive at that number rather than, say, you know 0.2 percent or 0.4 percent?
Sen. Testin: We used federal language that was incorporated in the 2014 Farm Bill as the standard we were going to use.
The Jack News: What is the fee required for farmers to be licensed to grow hemp under your bill?
Sen. Testin: Based on a formula that factors in the amount of acreage, the license fee is somewhere between $150 and $1,000.
Other issues, including criminal history search, Indian tribes, and a substitute amendment
The Jack News: As part of the licensing process, you said your bill requires a criminal history search. Are there any charges not drug-related that could disqualify an applicant and how recent must disqualifying charges be?
Sen. Testin: I don’t believe that any criminal activity outside of any controlled substance or drug charges are factored in.
The Jack News: Two years ago, the Obama administration raided Menomonee Indian land to bulldoze what the tribe claims to have been hemp plants, seemingly in contradiction of federal law under the 2014 Farm Bill, or at very least their sovereign status and the spirit of the law. Eventually, a judge dismissed Menomonee’s lawsuit against the DEA on the grounds that the farm bill only applied to “states,” distinct from “tribes”. What are your thoughts on that raid as a resident of Wisconsin and a supporter of federalism and local control?
Sen. Testin: Those are always tricky issues. In the original language of our bill, we addressed tribes, although we are going to remove that. We recognize the fact that these are sovereign nations.
The Jack News: Will any amendments to this bill be considered before any final vote and are there any which have yet been offered that you’d support? You talked about new, some new things being considered from public hearings, but are there any amendments written that are being considered currently?
Sen. Testin: We’re in the process right now of doing a substitute amendment. At the executive session, in committee, there were four amendments that we turned down. We’re still drafting right now, and working with my co-author Jesse Kremer, the Farm Bureau, and some other state coalitions and legislative councils to make sure we get this right. We see this as an opportunity to bring back a crop that Wisconsin was once a national leader in, and we think it’s time that we take up that mantle once again.
(Photo of a hemp crop by Adrian Cable via geograph.org.uk)