With the 2016 Kentucky Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program well under way, some problems have already grown faster than the plants themselves have. According to South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force (SCKDTF) Director Jacky Hunt, a close call occurred recently when agents were tipped off of a marijuana growing operation in Logan County that turned out to be hemp instead.
According to the Kentucky Agriculture Department industrial hemp is a variety of Cannabis that comes from the same plant species as marijuana, however, hemp is genetically different and distinguished by its use and chemical makeup. With a permit from the agriculture department, growing hemp is legal, but because of its exact comparison to marijuana by the naked eye, law enforcement can easily mistake the crop for marijuana.
Kentucky has a long history of growing hemp and at one time was the leading hemp producer in the U.S. There are many items made from hemp. Some estimate that the global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products, including: fabrics and textiles, yarns and raw or processed spun fibers, paper, carpeting, home furnishings, construction and insulation materials, auto parts, composites, animal bedding, foods and beverages, body care products, nutritional supplements, industrial oils, cosmetics, personal care, and pharmaceuticals.
The problems with growing hemp for law enforcement, according to Hunt, is the enforcement itself of the hemp crops, and making sure the illegal elements that could occur do not take advantage of the opportunity.
The SCKDTF responded to a tip last week in Logan County, said Hunt, of green houses full of what they thought were marijuana plants. His agents responded, set up surveillance and identified what they thought was marijuana growing in greenhouses. When bringing the information back to Hunt he thought it was a bit strange that the greenhouses were so close to the residence, and that they could also be seen from the road.
“I made some calls on a hunch,” said Hunt, which proved to be correct. “This was indeed a participant in the hemp production program.”
Hunt said he and his agents went to talk with the owners, who had the proper permits. “They were very nice and very cooperative,” said Hunt, adding the situation could have gone bad, however. “When growers get their permits for hemp production, we as an agency are not notified. The state police have GPS coordinates and fly routinely over the areas, but locally we are not kept in the loop.”
According to the director the tip could have lead to a search warrant, which could have lead to a confiscation of the product, all taking place very quickly.
“In a normal situation such as this, my agents would have gotten the search warrant and we would have gone in to secure the scene. If these greenhouses were to have been located in the back of a field, we may have pulled up all the plants,” said Hunt.
There are two hemp growers currently in Logan County participating in the pilot program. There are six in Christian County. Hunt said this number will most likely climb from year to year. Several other states have legalized the cultivation and research of industrial hemp, including Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
Participants for the 2016 Kentucky Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program were selected through an application process; the process was competitive and not all applicants were selected.
“I am concerned about the growing of hemp in the future,” said Hunt, who is retired from the Kentucky State Police and served in the narcotics division for years. “Hemp looks, smells and is processed exactly like marijuana. The only difference is the THC levels.”
Hemp plants are low in THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana’s primary psychoactive chemical). THC levels for hemp generally are less than 1 percent. Federal legislation that would exclude hemp from the legal definition of marijuana would set a ceiling of 0.3 percent THC for a cannabis variety to be identified as hemp. Marijuana refers to the flowering tops and leaves of psychoactive cannabis varieties, which are grown for their high content of THC. THC levels for marijuana average about 10 percent but can go much higher. So basically, unless tested, marijuana can pass for hemp unless tested for its THC levels.
“I see a lot of possible problems coming our way,” said Hunt. “Law enforcement fought tooth and nail with the implementation of this program. For me as a drug task force director, I am looking for the potential of abuse. The bad side entering into the equation. We already have so much to battle, and now we have a crop out there for all intense purposes looks exactly like the crop we are fighting against.”
An estimated 55,700 metric tons of industrial hemp are produced around the world each year. China, Russia, and South Korea are the leading hemp-producing nations. They account for 70 percent of the world’s industrial hemp supply.
Canada had 38,828 licensed acres of industrial hemp in 2011. Canadian exports of hemp seed and hemp products were estimated at more than $10 million, with most going to the U.S. Current industry estimates report that U.S. retail sales of all hemp-based products may exceed $300 million per year.
Hunt says if you are a future permitted hemp grower in Logan or Simpson County, it would be helpful to contact the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force to help divert a possible problem. He also asks the public to continue to call in tips despite hemp growth in the community.
To contact Chris Cooper, email [email protected] or call 270-726-8394.