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Florida readies for hemp industry as lawmaker support grows

Posted at 11:44 AM, Mar 29, 2019

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — New federal rules are opening the door for a new cash crop in Florida — hemp.

The 2018 Farm Bill allows states to create a plan to license and regulate hemp and submit that plan to the United States Department of Agriculture for approval.

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ABC Action News Reporter Kylie McGivern traveled across the state, talking to the players, learning the pitfalls and exploring the potential.

“We just want Tallahassee to get out of the way.”

Bob Clayton gave ABC Action News a tour of his Tarpon Springs home, made of hempcrete.

"I'm sitting in 11-tons of cannabis here in my house,” Clayton, a mechanical engineer said.

The home, finished in 2014, is the first of its kind in Florida and the fourth in the United States.

"You can tear this down, grind it up and put it into the next hempcrete house,” Clayton said of the building material.

Technically, Clayton said, his house is illegal.

"My shirt is illegal. My pants are illegal. It's all illegal in Florida. So this is the foolishness we have to change up in Tallahassee,” Clayton said, pointing to his clothing, also made from hemp.

But new federal rules have ignited a political debate in Florida over whether the state should open its doors to hemp, estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry in Florida. Clayton said he’s been traveling to the state capitol for years, working to convince lawmakers of the benefits of hemp.

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"We just want Tallahassee to get out of the way and let the farmers farm,” Clayton said.

Potential new cash crop for farmers

One of those farmers is Richard Lingenfelter.

"I think it's a big deal. I think it's going to be a good thing,” Lingenfelter said of industrial hemp.

Lingenfelter is looking for some good. After once looking out at thousands of citrus trees, today, his home sits on an empty 20-acres. Citrus greening destroyed his crop.

"It's like living in a graveyard with your family,” Lingenfelter said. “In a graveyard, because I planted these trees, took care of them for 26 years, 27-28 years, then had to push them out of the ground.”

Now, he wants to get into the hemp business.

"I'd be interested in planting a 10-acre patch, as an experiment, you know, to see how it goes,” Lingenfelter said.

ABC Action News asked the farmer what he thinks when he hears “industrial hemp.”

"Dope. Hahaha, that's what scares everybody,” Lingenfelter said.

Hemp doesn’t get you high

To be clear, hemp is not like it’s cousin, marijuana. You can’t get high from hemp.

Under federal law, hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC, the compound that gets people stoned.

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Environmental impact

Dr. T.H. Culhane, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Patel College of Global Sustainability, says farmers will need more water when they first plant hemp.

"There have been some concerns that industrial hemp, in its establishment phase, requires more water than some other plants like cotton,” Dr. Culhane said.

From seed to harvest, hemp uses half the water and land compared to cotton.

In addition, Dr. Culhane said there’s a water savings when it’s time to turn hemp into clothing.

"Hemp uses only a quarter of the water that cotton does for making the textiles,” Dr. Culhane said.

So what else can you make from hemp? Think construction materials, paper, food and the list goes on.

But there are still questions about where hemp would grow best in the state.

“Any question marks that we have regarding industrial hemp and its ability to compete with the traditional crops that we’ve been using, come from the fact that we don’t have a long history of investment in industrial hemp and certainly, not here in Florida,” Dr. Culhane said.

University research

Right now, research surrounding growing industrial hemp in Florida is limited to the University of Florida and Florida A&M University (FAMU).

The university’s website states:

“The UF/IFAS Industrial Hemp Pilot Project is working to identify varieties and planting recommendations that can be profitable for growers and environmentally responsible. Florida's climate and markets are very different from other places growing and selling hemp. Most hemp seed and plant materials on the market are adapted to those places, so we have to start with variety trials to find marketable hemp that grows well in Florida’s diverse soils, climates, latitudes. Economic research is being conducted to find the input costs of growing hemp, expectations of hemp’s market value, and a breakeven point to recommend when hemp is an ideal crop. Additionally, we are conducting a study for risk of invasiveness.”

UF expects to plant its first seed this year. But before hemp products are made in Florida, state lawmakers must approve.

State regulation

Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, a former medical marijuana lobbyist, told ABC Action News, "We're going to have to come out and regulate people are not growing THC plants, that they're actually growing industrial plants."

Fried said a pending bill would give police the right to access any hemp farm, at any time, to make sure they aren’t growing pot.

Proponents ABC Action News spoke with, voiced concerns of there being too much red tape, saying farmers should be able to go out and farm tomorrow.

"We're going to try to do as little regulation as possible but yet make sure that we're providing a safe environment for our farmers and for our citizens,” Fried responded.

Police: Cannabis products are still illegal in Florida

Local police say they also want a safe environment for consumers.

"In Florida, you cannot sell a cannabis product period, unless you are one of the licensed medical marijuana dispensaries,” Sarasota Police Investigator Michael Harrell told ABC Action News.

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The department is sending a message to those selling cannabis products, like CBD oil, without a license.

"We're going to make sure they stop selling this stuff, because it is a public safety risk at this point,” Harrell said, explaining people could be buying the products under the assumption that it doesn’t have THC in it.

Fried too, wants to make sure consumers know what they’re buying. She said under a state hemp program, she would want certain standards for testing and labeling for CBD products.

"That's why I'm pushing really hard to make sure the hemp bill passes this year, so that there is clarification in what is allowed and what is not allowed,” Fried said. “Giving our farmers an alternative crop that they can grow here in Florida and be prosperous, is a key mission of mine to make sure that we are having a striving economic impact on our agriculture community.”

Three of the four hemp bills have started making their way through the state legislature, with lawmakers approving unanimously in agriculture committees. That said, a lot can still happen between now and the end of the legislative session. The state's department of agriculture says if the legislation does not pass, hemp products will remain illegal under Florida law.