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February 17, 2014

Bill advances to legalize pot’s less potent cousin: hemp

Senate approves measure with unanimous vote

INDIANAPOLIS — Gregg Baumbaugh has 4,000 pounds of cannabis sitting in his automobile parts manufacturing plant. It wasn’t illegal for him to import it, but it’s against the law for Indiana farmers to grow the variety of cannabis he buys in bulk.

Baumbaugh wants to see that changed. The “weed” he uses to make the insides of interior doors and armrests at his Elkhart County business doesn’t have enough of the psychoactive ingredient THC to give anyone a marijuana mind-altering high.

“If somebody smokes the stuff we import, the only thing they’re going to get is a nasty headache,” said Baumbaugh, CEO of FlexForm.

Last month, Baumbaugh testified in favor of legislation that could open the door in Indiana to the farming and production of pot’s less potent cousin: hemp, a multipurpose crop that can be used in the production of textiles, foods, plastics, building materials and medicines.

To the surprise of the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, the legislation passed out of the conservative, Republican-controlled Senate with unanimous support and is headed for the House. Similar legislation in past years, entangled with efforts to legalize marijuana, never got out of committee.

“Nobody was expecting it was going to be a unanimous vote,” said Yoder, who admitted he was a reluctant supporter of the bill until Baumbaugh — whose plant is in Yoder’s district  — enlightened him.

Baumbaugh spends almost $1 million a year importing hemp and other natural fibers that provide the lightweight, biodegradable material that his automobile manufacturing customers, including Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, want to have used in their car interiors. The low weight of the material helps increase the car’s fuel efficiency.

“I could save a lot of money if I could buy it locally from farmers who were allowed to grow it,” Baumbaugh said. “It’s easy to grow. That’s why they call it a ‘weed’ — you can grow it anywhere.”

Yoder concurred: “The more research I do, the more ridiculous it seems that we’re not growing hemp.”

Marijuana and hemp are different varieties of the same species of plant — Cannabis Sativa — which is why it’s not a legal cash crop in Indiana. It used to be: The federal government encouraged the state’s farmers to grow industrial hemp rope during World War II.

But the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 lumped industrial hemp with marijuana and outlawed production of both, despite their chemical differences.

According to the Hemp Industries Association, manufacturers like Baumbaugh are allowed to import industrial hemp from countries that certify their product has a low level of THC — less than one-third of 1 percent. That’s a small fraction of the THC content in marijuana, which runs 14 to 30 percent.

Senate Bill 357, which Yoder co-sponsored with Sen. Richard Young, D-Milltown, is a first step toward separating marijuana and hemp.

It would clear the way for universities to conduct research to identify seeds to be certified by the state to grow hemp — a critical step in culling the similar-looking marijuana and hemp plants.

The bill would put the Indiana state chemist and seed commissioner at Purdue University in charge of overseeing hemp production, in cooperation with the Indiana State Police. It also creates a licensing procedure for Indiana farmers interested in growing hemp.

None of it has meaning, though, unless the federal government clears the way. That could happen soon: The new federal farm bill, signed by President Obama this month, allows state agriculture departments and universities to grow hemp for agricultural research purposes. But it applies only to the 10 states that have legalized industrial hemp farming, as the Indiana legislation is attempting to do.

Lauren Stansbury of the Hemp Industries Association, said the new federal farm bill provides a needed first step toward encouraging states to engage in industrial hemp production.

“So often, hemp gets caught up in the politics of marijuana,” she said. “But we’re seeing more states recognize the agricultural value of hemp.”

Yoder says it helps to have farmers and manufacturers behind the bill. Retired Indiana Farm Bureau lobbyist Bob Kraft testified for the bill when it was in the Senate, lending the legislation more credence.

Baumbaugh was glad to see him there. “I was afraid it was just going to me and a bunch of potheads,” he said. “I thought if that happens, we won’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing this thing get passed.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI, the Tribune-Star’s parent company. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.

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