Hemp (copy)

Hemp is one step closer to being grown, harvested, processed and marketed in Nebraska.

LINCOLN — Industrial hemp could be on its way back to Nebraska fields after almost 80 years.

State lawmakers took a major step Monday toward allowing marijuana’s practical cousin to be grown, harvested, processed and marketed in the state.

Despite warnings from some senators, the Legislature gave 37-4 first-round approval to a bill that would legalize industrial hemp and its products, including cannabidiol, or CBD, products.

Legislative Bill 657, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, provides for licensing and regulation of the new crop. The bill follows the regulation steps spelled out in last year’s federal farm bill. It also creates a Nebraska Hemp Commission to promote hemp and its products.

Wayne said he introduced the measure because he wanted to find a way to create jobs in Nebraska. In particular, he has said he hopes to land hemp processing facilities in his north Omaha district.

“What we’re trying to do is create a Nebraska plan for Nebraska growers,” he said.

He made clear that the bill deals only with strains of the cannabis plant with less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in other cannabis strains that produces intoxicating effects.

LB 657 has been developed in cooperation with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration, particularly the State Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska State Patrol. Both agencies opposed previous hemp proposals.

Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage explained the change, saying: “The farm bill legalized hemp nationally, and the state is pursuing a regulatory framework in response to federal action.”

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But Sen. John Lowe of Kearney warned that the bill would put youths at risk and make it more difficult to hold the line on legalizing marijuana, hemp’s intoxicating cousin.

“This is our state going down a slippery slope,” he said. “We’re jumping into the waters without knowing the depth.”

Lowe also argued that industrial hemp is an untried alternative crop. He urged colleagues to study the experiences of other states for another year or two.

Others responded that Nebraska needs to move more quickly to keep up with neighboring states. Hemp supporters have raised concerns about the time it took to launch hemp research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after a 2014 law allowed it.

LB 657 would expand that research by allowing the university to partner with growers and processors during the 2019 growing season. Results of that research could help shape the regulatory plan that the bill calls for the Agriculture Department to develop.

Wayne said that industrial hemp offers growth potential as an alternative crop and that the federal farm bill opened a way to take advantage of that potential.

He cited figures showing that the global market for hemp products, which range from fiber to medicine to food, was about $820 million last year. By 2025, it is expected to reach $10.6 billion.

Wayne also pointed to Nebraska’s hemp-growing past. The federal government allowed hemp production in the 1940s, during World War II. At the time, Nebraska was the top-producing state. The cannabis plants that pop up as weeds around the state are remnants of those days.

Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, a farmer who named LB 657 his priority for the session, took on the opponents who tried to link hemp to marijuana. He said that position made as much sense as banning corn because it could be used to make whiskey or potatoes because they could be used to make vodka.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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