Florida Politics

Hemp may help Florida farmers. Legislature starts letting the idea grow.

Hemp or marijuana: What’s the difference?

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When Congress passed a new farm bill in December 2018, it allowed hemp production to fire up beyond the university research setting. When the bill passed, Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried said her campaign promise to expand industrial hemp could now hold true.

But when it comes to expanding the licensing structure and access to grow, the Legislature takes responsibility.

The Senate committee on Innovation, Industry, and Technology on Wednesday unanimously approved a bill to do just that.

Sen. Rob Bradley’s SB 1010 authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program, which would make the plant an agricultural option for farmers across the state.

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Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high — and uses less water and fertilizer to grow.

The new $867 billion farm bill, among other things, classifies hemp as an agricultural commodity and takes it off the federal controlled substances list.

Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said the fundamental purpose of the bill is to bring Florida’s statutes up to date with the federal law.

“Hopefully, this will provide another opportunity for our agriculture community, which has taken a lot of hits recently,” he said. “This is the beginning of a big process for this state. ... It’s good this can be an option as long as we do this right.”

The House version of the bill sponsored by Republican Reps. Sam Killebrew and Ralph Massullo has not been heard, but Bradley said there’s a willingness on both sides to ensure an “opportunity for Florida farmers.” He added that the bills will likely look different than they do today.

“This is a beginning point to get the discussion going,” he said. “I think that there’s going to be a lot of give and take and discussions between Commissioner Fried’s office, my fellow legislators in the House.”

Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican, has also filed a similar bill to create a state hemp program.

The state’s first director of cannabis, Holly Bell, said hemp has been her priority as she gets settled in her new role. Bell, who helped grow the hemp industry in Tennessee before she moved to Florida, recently told the Herald/Times that she wants to be a resource when it comes to finding new uses for hemp.

“I’m here as a fellow state employee to help,” she said.

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Researchers have since said that hemp is proving successful at adapting to Florida’s growing conditions, which vary dramatically across the state. A staff analysis of Bradley’s bill said Florida farmers will likely benefit economically by the opportunity to plant, process and sell hemp and hemp-based products.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point Democrat, added that hemp was once used in the military for things like uniforms, rope and other equipment. That is, until nylon was invented.

Farmer pulled out a green baseball cap and put in on.

“I hope we can work together and make hemp great again,” he said.

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.