Florida Politics

A state hemp program for Florida? A vote is on the horizon

Hemp or marijuana: What’s the difference?

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Without much conversation and a brief, unanimous vote, a House panel voted Thursday to send a bill that would create a state hemp program to the chamber floor.

The bill, put forward by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, would authorize the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to administer a state hemp program and make the plant an agricultural option for farmers across the state.

Hemp, a form of the cannabis plant, contains only trace amounts of THC — the naturally occurring component in marijuana that produces a high. In 2014, the federal government authorized a state department or university to conduct a hemp pilot program. In 2017, Florida created one. Under the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was cleared to become an agricultural crop under a state-authorized program, which the bill aims to create.

A similar version of the bill in the Senate has also passed all of its committees.

If the bill is signed into law, the state will then have to submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and apply for primary regulatory authority over the production of hemp. The plan must include testing procedures, certification methods, inspection plans and corrective actions for farmers who may be in violation.

The bill comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s signing the new $867 billion farm bill which, among other things, classifies hemp as an agricultural commodity and takes it off the federal controlled substances list.

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At the House State Affairs committee Thursday morning, bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, compared the burgeoning hemp industry to a tech boom. He said young people will become the next Steve Jobs, and that new hemp products will soon be as ubiquitous as the iPhone.

“It will provide jobs not only in the industry, but for the young people today who need to learn a new career,” he said.

The state’s first director of cannabis, Holly Bell, said hemp has been a top priority as she settles into 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.

According to the bill’s staff analysis, at least 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America currently permit farmers to grow hemp. In the U.S., the hemp market is largely dependent on imports.

If passed, the hemp program will set up rulemaking and a board of experts to help develop the system in the state. 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 the bill said Florida farmers will likely benefit economically from the opportunity to plant, process and sell hemp and hemp-based products.

“Very rarely do we have a bill that has such a broad influence on the people of Florida,” Massullo said. “The hemp industry is waiting for someone to develop. The uses of hemp are myriad.”

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.