LINCOLN — "You can not get high from hemp, but you might get rich."
Economics professor Allan Jenkins from the University of Nebraska at Kearney drew laughter from the crowd with his quip when he testified Wednesday at a hearing for a bill that would allow Nebraska farmers to grow hemp.
LB1133 was introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha to create jobs and capitalize on a growing market. Hemp can be used to make fabric, rope, paper, clothing, drywall and a variety of other items. Jenkins and other proponents of the bill said legalizing hemp production in Nebraska could mean big money for Nebraska.
Proponents of the bill were careful to distinguish hemp from marijuana. Hemp has a low level of THC, the main intoxicating chemical in marijuana, and can’t create a high. The crop also "contaminates" marijuana plants, Jenkins said.
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"Actually, if you’re opposed to marijuana, you should encourage hemp production," he said. "The two do not peacefully coexist."
Rebecca Schwarz of the Nebraska Farm Bureau represented the organization at the hearing, testifying in favor of the bill.
Industrial hemp is projected to be a $1 billion industry within the next two to three years, Wayne said.
Whether that prediction turns out to be true, Jenkins is sure producing hemp will have a positive impact on the state.
"Substantial economic benefits will accrue to the state of Nebraska and its citizens if we become leaders in the production of industrial hemp," he said.
The hearing drew a sizable crowd of supporters including professors, farmers and concerned citizens.
Josh Egle, a farmer with land just beyond the western edges of Nebraska in Wyoming and Colorado, said soil conditions in Nebraska are perfect for growing hemp.
"The potential for Nebraska is greater than anywhere else," he said. Between the 1880s and the 1940s, Nebraska was one of the largest hemp producers in the United States. Since farmers stopped growing it after World War II, wild hemp continued to sprout across the state.
"You can’t go anywhere in Nebraska without being five miles away from hemp," he said. Egle urged the Agriculture Committee to send LB 1133 to the legislative floor for debate because other states have already begun producing hemp.
"This bill is all about getting farmers in Nebraska aboard the train before it completely leaves the station," he said.
A few provided opposition to the bill, including Steve Wellman of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. His testimony primarily concerned implementation, licensing, inspection and marketing costs, which, he said, could reach $950,000 over the next two years.
Wellman also said Nebraska could violate federal drug laws by allowing the cultivation of hemp. Regardless of THC content, he said, marijuana in any form is federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug. Even so, Wellman said the department does "see some opportunities here if we can alleviate some of these problems."
Omaha tribal chair Michael Wolfe suggested growing hemp in Nebraska could solve more problems than it might create. He said the Omaha reservation faces a 70-percent unemployment rates, and the jobs associated with hemp production might allow his people opportunities to work and prosper.
"(Hemp) is gold if we utilize it properly," Wolfe said. He echoed Egle’s sentiment that time is running out for Nebraska to be a leader in hemp production.
"I ain’t no different than the Big Red football team," Wolfe said. "I wanna win."