Seeds of truth elusive in debate over interaction between hemp and marijuana

02/01/2013 01:25 PM

_Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the debate over legalizing industrial hemp in Kentucky. _

Hemp is either the worst nightmare for marijuana or the best friend for marijuana growers — depending on who you ask.

As Kentucky lawmakers consider whether to put into law a framework to regulate industrial hemp, they and the public are getting barraged with those competing messages from hemp proponents and law enforcement.

It has become, in part, a debate over biology 101.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has said industrial hemp — which can be used to make fuel, plastics or textiles — would be the “worst nightmare” for marijuana growers because pollination between the two varieties of cannabis plants would reduce the psychedelic properties in the marijuana. Kentucky State Police and other law enforcement officials say they don’t buy that and believe hemp growers could trick law enforcement by growing marijuana in a hemp field.

Currently, the federal government has banned the growth of hemp and marijuana plants.

One reason for all the confusion is a lack of independent university studies because of the hemp plant’s illegal status a researcher has to apply to the federal government for a research waiver.

Linda Gonzales, a professor of plant sciences at Western Kentucky University, said that because of a paucity of research it’s difficult to know the actual science of the plant.

“Most research in the public arena is supported by public funds,” Gonzales said.

For most scholars a study of hemp or marijuana would would require a scientific grant and the government is not handing out a multitude of grants to study a plant they’ve outlawed, the agronomist said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse does offer some funding options for researchers wanting to study marijuana and other illegal drugs. And the University of Mississippi runs the country’s only legal marijuana farm. According to CNN \ the university lab is under contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse to grow marijuana and ship it to researchers across the United States.

Is there something in the air?

Jim Higdon, the author of the Cornbread Mafia : A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History and member of Kentucky’s Industrial Hemp Commission, said growers within Kentucky’s marijuana industry are nervous about the prospect of industrial hemp in the state because of the pollen.

Higdon said the release of pollen from the male hemp plant would pollinate the female bud of the marijuana plant and thus decrease the THC. THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, decreases after pollination – because the plant stops producing the THC rich resins that capture the pollen, and the plant would spend its energy on reproduction – creating seeds.

“Pot growers hate pollen so much that indoor growers put hepa filters in their intake vents and sticky mats at the doors,” Higdon said.

Outdoor marijuana growers in Kentucky are very worried about what hemp could do their crops, said Higdon who got to know them while researching his book. Higdon said the state’s geographic layout plays a crucial role in pollination. Winds blow west to east across the commonwealth taking pollen with it. So hemp grown in west Kentucky could pollinate marijuana being secretly grown in central Kentucky.

Hemp contains much lower amounts of THC, and the law being proposed in the General Assembly would limit the amount in industrial hemp seeds at .3 percent THC. While the variety and potency of marijuana varies by the methods used to grow it, but it generally ranges from 1 percent to 20 percent THC.

Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, however, said the science that has been shared with him does not match the concerns of marijuana farmers.

“Our scientists at our lab and every study we have seen tells us time and time again that on a first generation planting there will be no cross pollination that will affect the THC level in those two strains,” Brewer said. Here’s the interview with Brewer discussing pollination:

At first glance

As mentioned in the first report in the series on hemp, law enforcement officials are concerned about being able to distinguish between hemp and marijuana plants.

M. Scott Smith, Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky and a member of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, said hemp and marijuana are very different if someone knows what to look for. He made the analogy that marijuana is to hemp, as broccoli is to cauliflower. Genetically. they’re from the same species of plants known as cannabis, but the traits are what separates them.

They have physical differences based primarily on how they’re grown.

Marijuana growers prefer to grow shorter, bushy plants with more leaves and buds. Therefore, they space their plants further apart. Hemp farmers cultivate tall plants with spindly stalks, and thus grow them very closely together.

Hemp grown for seed and oil are spaced somewhere in between the thresholds for marijuana and fibrous hemp varieties.

Kim Shukla, an agrologist in Manatoba, Canada, and executive director of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance. said the problem she foresees with the Kentucky hemp regulations is the size of the plots that are designated in SB 50 . In the legislation offered by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, the regulations state that a minimum of 10 acres of hemp would be grown, but in Canada the hemp farmers must grow at least 40 acres of the plant.

“For a truly legitimate farmer…10 acres is just too small, it would be an issue,” Shukla said in a phone interview. “There are quite small yields at 10 acres for the industrial process.”

Shukla said it comes down to careful policing on the acreage being grown. She said law enforcement officials know if they spot 50-100 acres of cannabis being grown at the spot designated on a license as being a hemp farm it is a hemp farm, but if they spot 5-10 acres of cannabis, it is likely marijuana.

Somewhere lies the truth

Ultimately, arguments from both sides are rooted in the truth, said Shukla, of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance.

“Hemp and marijuana can cohabitate very happily together,” Shukla said, underscoring Commissioner Brewer’s concerns about illicit growers.

But, Shukla said the hemp and marijuana would pollinate each other, thus decreasing the THC in marijuana.

Shukla said she’s not aware of any farmer in Canada who has tried to grow illicit marijuana in a hemp field during the five years the country has allowed industrial hemp

“We haven’t had anyone quite ballsy enough to do that yet,” Shukla said.

Smith, from the UK Ag College, agrees with Shkula that pollination from hemp would decrease THC in marijuana.

“It’s a fact of plant fertilization that pollination from any source would make the THC lower,” Smith said.

Brewer said he and other law enforcement officials just don’t buy that.

“If that were the issue, one of our greatest counter measures in the war against marijuana would be for us to just go out and strategically plant hemp crops throughout Kentucky so that it would taint marijuana,” Brewer said. “I wish it was that easy.”

Of course, doing that wouldn’t be legal.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm joined cn|2 in December 2011 as a reporter for Pure Politics. He is now the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics. Throughout his career, Nick has covered several big political stories up close, including interviewing President Barack Obama on the campaign trail back in 2008. Nick says he loves being at the forefront of Kentucky politics and working with the brightest journalists in the commonwealth. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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