It may seem unlikely, but a form of cannabis played a surprising part in the foundational history of the United States, namely the maiden voyage.

The Mayflower that ferried British separatists across the sea, the descendants of whom would later craft the Constitution, was a vessel made possible by the use of hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant with little psychoactive properties but immense industrial potential spanning food, cosmetics and building supplies.

The fiber in the lines, sails and caulking of the Mayflower was crafted from hemp, a plant that was recognized for its usefulness throughout colonial American history. Americans were compelled by British law to grow it, and miles of the stuff were put to use in Britain’s maritime fleet due to its natural resistance to deterioration and the ease of its cultivation.

Later in America’s history, states such as Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky were crucial to a hemp industry that was fundamental to the country’s shipbuilding efforts throughout the Revolutionary War and until the late 1800s, when demand for the product diminished as steam ships started populating the ocean.

The final death knell for the crop’s vast importance in America sounded with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, intended to regulate psychoactive varieties of cannabis, and the increasing availability of cheap synthetic fibers used as a convenient substitute for hemp fiber.

By 1958, America harvested its last significant hemp crop, and the lid on the coffin was closed with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s, which replaced the Marijuana Tax Act and relegated cannabis to the most prohibitive category – Schedule 1 – under President Richard Nixon.

Hemp resurgence

The U.S. has begun to see a renaissance in hemp cultivation and research. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the Industrial Hemp Farming Act in 2015 that allowed for the production and cultivation of industrial hemp by American farmers and removed hemp from the controlled substances list as long as it contained no more than .3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most active psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

The move followed the signing of the Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 Farm Bill, a piece of Obama-era legislation that allowed universities and state departments of agriculture to grow and cultivate hemp.

Today, neighboring states are exploring the potential for hemp. Nebraska allows postsecondary institutions and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to research hemp, and Colorado allows hemp cultivation for commercial and research purposes overseen by the Department of Agriculture. Oklahoma introduced a hemp bill this year in its state legislature that would allow hemp farming once again.

At least 30 states have passed hemp-related legislation, and Kansas, too, is considering one. House Bill 2182, also known as the Agricultural Industry Growth Act, was drafted to allow farmers in our state to grow hemp and researchers at Kansas State University to explore its varieties and identify its industrial uses.

Hemp, a drought-resistant crop with a growing pattern similar to winter wheat, already can be used for paper, clothing, rope, basic plastics, food, cosmetics and “hempcrete” — a bio-composite used for construction and insulation purposes.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, passed the House in a 103-18 vote, with four members not voting. Dove introduced the bill as a response to the “tough time” farmers are facing in Kansas’ drought-ridden climate. A variation of hemp known as “ditch weed” already grows wild in the state; however, ditch weed typically has a higher THC concentration and grows with less fervor.

HB 2182 would allow hemp for cultivation and research purposes as they relate to business development and distribution by encouraging public-private partnerships and academic research. The Kansas Department of Agriculture would oversee licensing, testing, distribution and other logistical components of the project’s development.

The bill lingers in the Senate, and Rep. Les Mason, R-McPherson, who chairs the House Commerce Committee, believes that the chances the bill will reach a floor vote are good, but he isn't certain that will happen during this year's legislative session.

“I think in the long term, it would be a great economic boost, particularly in western Kansas because I think the terrain and the soil and the climate would be particularly well-suited to growing hemp at least as an alternate crop or maybe a second crop,” Mason said. “(Its) subsoil root structure is just immense. Therefore, it’s virtually drought-resistant.”

Mason said he is also interested in the processing plants that would spring up to manufacture hemp into various commercial and industrial products, resulting in economic development opportunities for many state counties otherwise struggling in an agricultural industry yielding limited profits.

Mason noted that Kansas once played a role in the hemp industry of the early 20th Century.

“We know it can be grown because it was then, and it was a vibrant plant back in the day,” he said, adding that hemp has the potential to become a billion-dollar nationwide market.

At the Garden City Chamber of Commerce's Legislative Coffee on April 13, Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, said industrial hemp "won't get through the Senate."

Doll acknowledged that industrial hemp does not contain a powerful psychoactive quality, explaining that "you could get dropped in the middle of a circle (of hemp) which is 120 acres, catch it all on fire and you won't get high."

Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, said at the Legislative Coffee that "the industrial hemp would be regulated and tested in a way to assure that the active ingredient contained within the hemp is nonexistent or exists to a level that is sub-intoxicating, and that's a cash crop which we did pass in the House, a bill to begin experimenting with expanding the potential commercial production of industrial hemp."

Jennings and Rep. John Wheeler, R-Garden City, both voted for HB 2182 as amended.

While Doll didn't specify whether he was in favor of the hemp bill, he did note that he might vote for medical marijuana. In a subsequent interview, Doll said, "As of right now, I'd favor it." 

Doll said he still doesn't know enough about the plant, such as how much water it requires, but added that he sees it as "a positive thing for agriculture in western Kansas." 

"The downside of it is its cousin and what repercussions could come from that, and then you'd weigh that out," Doll said. "If I had to vote today on what I know today, I would vote for it, ..." 

Law enforcement concerns

Opponents to the bill probably won’t include Gov. Sam Brownback, Mason said. However, the bill does face pushback from various law enforcement agencies, including the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police (KACP), the Kansas Peace Officers Association (KPOA) and the Kansas Sheriff’s Association.

Law enforcement officials argued in testimonial that the bill is not in compliance with the 2014 Farm Act or federal law. Section 3 of the bill seemingly allowed the state to license “any grower” to cultivate hemp, law enforcement officials argued in a testimonial submitted by the KACP and the KPOA. An amendment has since been passed that would gear the bill more toward research purposes to allay law enforcement’s concerns.

The bill also would excuse plants with less than .3 percent THC concentration from classification as a controlled substance, or “marijuana” as defined by state law for the purpose of criminal prosecution.

Katie Whisman, executive officer at the KBI, emphasized that THC is still illegal both in Kansas and on the federal level. She said field tests used by law enforcement to determine whether plant matter is marijuana simply detect the presence of any THC in their evaluation. She added that even the KBI’s lab follows a similar process in its analysis.

“… Currently, we do a ‘yes or a no’ test,” Whisman said. “If it’s present, it’s illegal. Under this, we would be required to quantitate all of our samples in order to help prosecutors establish probable cause for filing charges in any case that is suspected to be vegetation, whether that’s industrial hemp or marijuana.”

Whisman said the KBI would need to acquire expensive new technology known as a GC-MS machine to determine at what quantity THC exists in a sample. She explained that the testing process also would take more time and require the development of new methods of quantitating THC, “because right now there is no forensic lab in the state of Kansas that does that.”

The KBI produced a fiscal note at the request of the Kansas Division of the Budget determining that based on the number of samples currently tested at the KBI’s lab, the estimation of time for quantitation of those samples, the added equipment and supplies, and the additional personnel required to reduce backlogs and turnaround times, would cost the state $816,000 in FY 2018 and $628,000 in FY 2019 “and beyond.”

Whisman added that those numbers do not take into consideration the complications facing local law enforcement officers, who currently use a disposable testing kit that simply determines the presence of an illicit chemical compound.

“The technology that local law enforcement has in the state of Kansas may not be ready to tell the difference between the legal and the illegal,” Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said. “It is going to be an expense to local law enforcement, and not only that, but more than likely there is going to be a training aspect involved. … It doesn’t come free.”

Chris Underwood, co-founder of Kansans for Hemp who says he worked for the Department of Homeland Security as a drug interdiction agent on the Canadian border for four years and in the Kansas Department of Corrections for two years, said law enforcement’s concerns about distinguishing between hemp and marijuana are understandable, but ultimately unwarranted.

Underwood described hemp as the “anti-marijuana,” explaining that cross-pollinating between hemp and marijuana strains of cannabis degrades the marijuana flower’s THC concentration and renders it virtually useless as a psychoactive drug.

“Anybody trying to grow marijuana, they obviously want as much THC in it as possible," Underwood said. “So with hemp crossbreeding with it, it’s going to drastically reduce the amount of THC in that upcoming marijuana crop, so you’d be crazy to be growing outdoor marijuana anywhere near a hemp field, which I believe that a hemp field belongs in every corner of this state. Kansas is an agricultural powerhouse. Anything that we’re going to grow, we’re going to grow on a massive scale.”

Underwood bemoaned the amendment to HB 2182 that would restrict the crop’s access to farmers. Noting other countries such as Canada that actively cultivate hemp and manufacture its derivative products for distribution in the United States, he said the information and research proving the crop’s benefits already exist, adding that, “Our farmers should be the ones researching how this best grows under their own operation.”

“Research isn’t going to bring our farmers out of the slump that they’re in,” Underwood said. “We need full-blown agricultural reforms as far as hemp is concerned. …”

Kansas could lead

Caryl Hale, women’s chair for the Norton County Farm Bureau, said she reached out to Colorado’s Department of Agriculture to gauge their progress with industrial hemp after three years of working with it. She said Colorado  already has encountered hurdles with agricultural approaches to hemp’s cultivation, adding that, “They’re kind of waiting for a state like Kansas that has all the resources for research, has the land resources, has a ton of farmers to help push the industry along, because right now it’s just small farmers kind of winging it.”

Hale compared hemp’s growing cycle to that of winter wheat. She explained that with an early rain, hemp can take off in Kansas’ climate.

“It’s a pretty hardy, drought-tolerant plant,” she said, noting the abundance of hemp’s “ditch weed” variant in Norton County. “If they’re using it like winter wheat (in Colorado), we can grow that all day here in Kansas.”

Mary Knapp, assistant state climatologist, said mean temperatures in southwest Kansas “would fit in the optimal range for growing” hemp “on both the cold and warm side of the growing range.” She added that precipitation levels and soil varieties in southwest Kansas are conducive to growing hemp.

“It does not grow well on acid soils, heavy clays or gravelly soils that dry out quickly,” Knapp said, “which is not one of (southwest Kansas') problems.”

According to Knapp, hemp can be planted earlier than corn because it tolerates colder temperatures and “grows quite well at relatively low temperatures” with seedlings that tolerate some exposure to frost.

Morton County farmer Reid Shrauner said another benefit to hemp over corn is that it is not nearly as dependent on water.

“We know the Ogallala Aquifer is a depleting resource, and irrigated farmers like me know that it has a useful life and someday it will be gone to the point where it’s not usable at irrigation-type quantities of water to pump,” Shrauner said. “On the horizon, saving water is a concern that’s important to me and I think a lot of other farmers.”

Shrauner, 37, said he has three children who might carry on his farming business, adding that the aquifer probably won’t be useful during some of their lifetime. He explained that a profitable crop that doesn’t require much water is “a very big interest to me.”

Morton County is desperately trying to draw in new industry, Shrauner said, explaining that the bulk of the county’s income is derived from farming, oil and gas industries “that have taken a hit,” resulting in a county valuation that has depleted by half in the last eight years.

Shrauner said corn, wheat and milo are the primary crops grown in Morton County, adding that wheat and milo are “both severely unprofitable … and corn barely is.”

“The inputs are high, and the commodity prices right now are historically low,” Shrauner said. “Inflation-adjusted, they’re really, really low.

“To pump water on a crop that doesn’t make any money, or worse, loses money, doesn’t do the state any good. It doesn’t do the farmer any good. Maybe sometime down the road the prices of those things will be higher, but in these years with depressed prices, that water will be used up for no benefit to anybody at that amount.”

Rural counties hopeful

Vienna Lee, director of Morton County Economic Development, said she would like to pursue refinement and manufacturing of hemp seed in Morton County, explaining that the U.S. imports hemp products from other countries such as Canada without fostering a consistent marketplace of our own.

“The decline with our oil and gas, with the crops and the water situation, we’re limited on our resources,” Lee said. “We’re very open and supportive of the bill and creating another opportunity for our county.”

Lee said Morton County farmers turned out “a huge showing” at the state capital during the House hearing on HB 2182, adding that Morton County has “a young group of people that are very excited about moving forward and bringing change to our county for a brighter future.”

Kelly Rippel of Kansans for Hemp said he is laying the groundwork for a hemp forum to be held in the Hutchinson area when the legislative session resumes in May. He said he hopes to show lawmakers that the pros of industrial hemp are far-reaching and include benefits to the soil and the sustainability of Kansas.

Rippel recounted a story his father told him when he was around 10 years old, detailing a government-funded project his father participated in at K-State in the 1970s, when he was pursuing his agronomy and biology degrees.

He said the study involved different methods for eradicating hemp, including burning, chemicals and pesticides.

“What they concluded is that there is no best method of eradicating it because it always comes back,” Rippel said. “He told me this when I was very young … that was the Reagan era. DARE was everywhere. So at that point, I became really interested in it. We were also being told: You are the generation that has to save the world. You guys have to look at the more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of living.”

Rippel said he has dedicated much of his life to researching society’s relationship with cannabis, traveling out of state and establishing contacts all over the U.S. and in other countries.

“It’s a movement, and it’s inevitable,” he said. 

The primary purpose of Rippel’s forum in Hutchinson would be to show lawmakers the economic importance of hemp to farming communities and to the long-term sustainability and public health of Kansas. He noted that the amendment to HB 2182 that would limit cultivation to research purposes is “unfortunate.”

“This is the perfect opportunity not only to help relationships and build trust in our system, in our infrastructure, in our state government, but it’s also a perfect opportunity to explore new, exciting industries that we know are in the billions of dollars," Rippel said. "To allow products to be imported in but not to be processed and cultivated here is only harming ourselves. Just to give farmers a chance to help diversify their assets … will benefit everyone in the state … Now is the time to make some change.”