State pushes forward on industrial hemp

Department of Agriculture invites public comment on regulations for legal hemp

A farmer tends to hemp. It might look like marijuana, but it’s not. (Flickr)

A farmer tends to hemp. It might look like marijuana, but it’s not. (Flickr)

By Ted Cox

As a new General Assembly prepares to take on legalizing marijuana, the already legal industrial hemp moves forward, with the state inviting public comment for rules on the cannabis plant.

The Illinois Farm Bureau touted a story this week pointing out that the Illinois Department of Agriculture had published initial rules for legal hemp cultivation, beginning a 45-day public comment period to set regulations. The rules, along with others for new state regulations, were published at the end of the year.

Jeff Cox, chief of the department’s Bureau of Medical Plants, said his staff had been working intensely on the rules since Gov. Rauner signed industrial hemp into law in August. The rule-making process typically takes six months after a bill is signed into law.

“We started doing research on the rules across the country to model our rules,” Cox said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into it since Aug. 27 when the governor signed the bill.”

Although both are cannabis plants, hemp is to be distinguished from marijuana. Hemp has low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical compound that gives pot its psychological effects, and a wide range of industrial uses, from cars to clothing to body care to possibly replacing plastic in some containers.

Environmentalists have pointed out hemp gives famers another local, self-sustaining alternative to export crops like corn and soybeans. Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said hemp has helped break down resistance to legal cannabis from relatively conservative groups like the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Illinois became the 35th state to legalize hemp last year, but then President Trump legalized it nationally as part of the new Farm Bill he signed into law last month.

Cox called the Farm Bill “a little monkey wrench thrown in,” as it set federal rules for hemp, but those served as guides for the new state regulations.

According to the online news story, “the proposed rules would require a licensing application be completed at least 90 days before cultivation. That license, once approved, would be good for three years.”

Farmers will be charged to come up with a pre-planting report and a harvest report, and will be subject to an annual inspection.

According to Cox, the uncertainty about how many farmers will make the shift to hemp means the department may yet have to hire more staff to police the program.

“We don’t have any limits on licenses at this time,” Cox told the RFD Radio Network. “We really don’t know how many applications to expect. We’ve had a lot of interest from the public over the last few months, calling about the licensing process. If everybody who called me were to apply for a license, we’d probably have 5,000 licenses this year. But I don’t know if we’ll have 50 or 5,000, it’s really hard to say at this point.”

Ted Cox