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June 7, 2014

Industrial hemp gets a champion

Indiana’s seed Czar awaits DEA approval

INDIANAPOLIS — It may take Robert Waltz some time to get used to his new role as Indiana’s “hemp czar.”

As the state’s seed commissioner, Waltz may soon oversee the planting of Indiana’s first legal crop of cannabis in decades.

“It’s not a title I would take up on my own,” said the 60-year-old Waltz. “But I’ve been called worse.”

In April, Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation to allow Indiana farmers to grow industrial hemp. He tasked Waltz — appointed in 2009 as both the state chemist and seed commissioner — with clearing the way for that to happen. It’s no easy task.

Hemp lacks the psychoactive punch of marijuana, but both are derived from the cannabis sativa plant. Hemp was once an abundant crop in Indiana — production peaked during the war effort in 1943 — but it’s been illegal to grow since 1970. That’s when the Controlled Substances Act lumped industrial hemp with marijuana and outlawed production of both, despite their chemical differences.

The farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year re-opened the door for industrial hemp production as a cash crop. It allows states and universities to grow hemp for agricultural research if they can get a waiver from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Some see growing hemp as a first step toward wider production of a plant that other countries already use for a range of household purposes — including paper, cosmetics and textiles.

Waltz, who’s based at Purdue University, has sought the DEA’s permission, but it may be months before the state gets approval.

Until then, he and a team of researchers are working on myriad hemp-related issues, from licensing procedures for farmers to security rules that will keep potheads from passing off marijuana as the lookalike hemp.

“One of the questions we have to answer is, ‘How stringent do the regulations need to be?’” Waltz said. “We want to encourage its production while recognizing the social concerns that come with it.”

Waltz is no stranger to exercising regulatory power. In a past job as the state’s insect expert, he ordered the takedown of thousands of mature trees on private property that were infested with killer pests, and he quarantined wide swaths of forested land to curb their spread.

And some hemp regulations have already been cast. If Indiana gets the DEA’s go-ahead, any hemp grower or handler would have to agree to a criminal background check and random inspections to ensure their plants meet the definition of industrial hemp. No one with a drug felony or misdemeanor in the past 10 years will be able to get a hemp license.

That should take care of some of the more suspect individuals who’ve been calling Waltz in recent weeks to inquire about how to get into the trade. He won’t give too much detail about the callers other than to say, “There are some who are clearly abusing marijuana.”  

One major issue still to be resolved is determining demand for the hemp crop. There’s no processing plant in Indiana that can turn the hemp leaves into the textile-grade fiber that would be marketable on a large scale.  

“I don’t know if there is going to be a need for thousands and thousands of acres of it,” Waltz said. “I’d be surprised if takes more than a few hundred acres to satisfy demand.”

Indiana is one of 10 states that has moved to legalize industrial hemp production. (Kentucky researchers planted their first hemp crop in late May.) Some proponents of industrial hemp’s cultivation hope it moves the state a step closer toward legalizing marijuana.

Waltz doesn’t see that happening anytime soon, though he keeps his opinion to himself.

“That’s really not my role,” he said. Instead, his job is to put together what he called “the best science and the best policy and the best social construct to bring about what needs to happen.”

“That’s really my charge,” Waltz said. “Anything else is beyond the bounds.”

To make sure he’s following the Legislature’s intent, Waltz has met several times with state Rep. Don Lehe, R-Brookston, a farmer who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.  

“I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Lehe said of Waltz. “It’s not easy. We tell him what to do and he has to figure out how to do it.”

Unlike Waltz, Lehe voices his opinion about the hemp law’s potential impact on the state’s drug laws. “I’m very committed to this not turning into a doorway for statewide marijuana liberalization,” he said. “We’re not interested in using hemp to legalize pot.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Reach her at maureen.hayden@indi Follow her on Twitter @Maureen Hayden.

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