Will hemp become a Polk County cash crop? – The Ledger

State Sen. Ben Albritton files bill he says would boost Florida agriculture.

LAKELAND — Florida Sen. Ben Albritton admits that not long ago he wanted nothing to do with hemp.

“I was very skeptical at first because, yes, I heard the word ‘hemp’ and I thought ‘marijuana,’ and I was very skeptical,” said Albritton, a Republican from Wauchula. “What I’ve learned is they are two very different things.”

Albritton, one of the few farmers in the Florida Legislature, has changed his view of hemp so thoroughly that he filed a bill Thursday aimed at establishing a hemp industry in Florida. The bill follows the passage by Congress in December of a Farm Bill allowing the widespread cultivation and sale of hemp.

The 10-page bill would create a state hemp program within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It would also direct Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to submit a plan to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and allow state universities to start industrial hemp pilot projects.

Albritton’s district covers the southern portion of Polk County, along with all or part of seven other counties. He has a district office in Bartow.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, has filed a companion bill in the Florida House. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, filed a bill Wednesday that also seeks to create rules for a hemp industry.

The legislative session begins March 5.

“I think it’s exciting, not just to farmers but to everyone in our area and in the state, that this option is there,” Albritton said. “You’re talking about not just growing but building an entire supply chain, of building a new industry. How many times do we as legislators have an opportunity like this to literally create a new industry and supply chain in Florida? That’s been pretty rare. So that in itself is exciting.”

Hemp is often confused with marijuana. The plants are different strains of cannabis, but hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the compound in marijuana that causes a “high.”

Hemp has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its fiber has been used to make a variety of products, including paper, rope, clothing and boat sails. And Albritton said he was excited to learn that hemp can be used as an ingredient in construction materials as a replacement for concrete.

The plant can contain high amounts of CBD, another compound that is believed to have beneficial health effects. CBD oil extracted from hemp plants is legally sold in stores throughout Florida. Hemp also contains edible seeds that are high in protein.

Before passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, federal law allowed hemp cultivation only in a small, pilot program. The bill now allows broad cultivation and also legalizes the transfer of hemp products across state lines for commercial purposes.

The congressional action followed years of changing attitudes and legal approaches toward cannabis. California legalized the use of medical marijuana in 1996, and 32 other states — including Florida — have since followed suit. Florida is not among the 10 states that now allow unrestricted consumption of marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level.

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 legalizing the use of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions. Only residents who receive state-issued cards and get recommendations from approved doctors may obtain marijuana products from one of the 14 companies granted cultivation licenses.

Some of the marijuana products sold at dispensaries contain high levels of THC. Albritton’s bill would adopt a maximum level of THC in hemp products at 0.3 percent by dry weight.

Albritton said his interest in hemp surged after he joined Florida Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, in touring areas devastated last year by Hurricane Michael.

“He and I went to meet with some farmers over there,” Albritton said. “They had heard of the possibility of having a state hemp program and are very excited about the possibility.”

Albritton said some farmers and citrus growers in Polk County have also expressed enthusiasm about the potential for growing hemp. The citrus industry has been badly hurt by a series of biological threats, most recently the spread of citrus greening.

Albritton said he has been told that Florida’s climate could make it possible to cultivate two hemp crops a year.

Adding to the momentum toward expanded cannabis use in Florida, voters last November elected Fried, a former lobbyist for the medical marijuana industry, as agriculture commissioner.

“I have not spoken to her specifically about this, but I have heard they are already getting ready to promulgate rules that would go along with legislation to implement a statewide program,” Albritton said. “So it all seems to be moving in the same direction at a rapid pace, but a thoughtful one.”

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she has not read Albritton’s bill but is open to the idea of promoting a hemp industry in Florida.

“I’m not familiar with the bill he has actually filed, but as far as discussion of hemp — I don’t have a problem with growing hemp products,” Stargel said. “I think all of us have been more educated on the difference (between hemp and marijuana) — THC, no THC. I didn’t even know the difference in that a few years ago. Now we do.”

Polk County Commissioner Bill Braswell grows blueberries and said he has explored the possibility of switching to hemp. He said he welcomes a new option for agriculture, but he thinks some farmers are overestimating the crop’s likely economic impact.

He said producing hemp for CBD oil is much more lucrative than for other uses.

“I’m afraid so many growers are looking at it from the CBD oil standpoint,” he said. “There is not going to be a lot of room for that many people doing that; at least I don’t see it. And when you do the math on the fiber part of it, you’re down to a commodity, a grain-type price, which is not thousands of dollars per acre of income but hundreds. I think there’s dollar signs in a lot of people’s eyes, and they’re going to be pennies, in reality.”

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.

Source: https://www.theledger.com/news/20190216/will-hemp-become-polk-county-cash-crop