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Hemp hurdles

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Questions raised by Governor Hutchinson about whether regulations for industrial hemp research conflict with federal law and other queries have apparently slowed progress toward the implementation of the Arkansas Industrial Hemp Act.

The Industrial Hemp Committee, which is under the state Plant Board, approved draft regulations in January. Plant Board Director Terry Walker met with Hutchinson afterward to go over the rules. On Monday, Feb. 12, an agent from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency visited the Plant Board. A spokeswoman for the board said she could not discuss specifics of the meeting, and the DEA did not return a call from the Arkansas Times. J.R. Davis, the governor's spokesman, said the governor did not request the DEA to make the visit.

The Arkansas Hemp Association, an advocacy group for hemp growers, reported the Plant Board's visit from the DEA on its Facebook page and that Hutchinson had asked the board whether the drafted regulations would "interfere with the DEA regulations." The association is concerned that delay of the implementation of the regulations will also hinder growers from making a crop this year. "Unless Governor Hutchinson is convinced that the DEA does not have the authority to interfere with our industrial hemp research pilot program, the rules will not be signed off on and the program will not get started this year," the association said in the post.

Hutchinson issued a statement confirming that he met with Walker but said he was simply doing due diligence on a new program. "I met with Director Walker to discuss this issue, and I was not satisfied with the level of information I received, and that is why I requested additional facts," Hutchinson said. "This is about having answers to valid questions before moving forward with any decision on hemp regulations.

Davis declined to provide specifics on the meeting, saying the governor "doesn't go into detail on conversations with his agency directors." Nicholas Dial, of the Hemp Association and one of the co-authors of the Industrial Hemp Act, said he learned about the meeting when Walker sought his help in answering the governor's questions.

According to Dial, the questions concern whether the regulations conflict with federal law and would concern the DEA; what the estimated economic impact in Arkansas would be; how that impact would be affected if the hemp were not allowed to be grown commercially; and what was the latest date the seeds could be planted for a viable crop this year. The questions are posted on the association's Facebook page in a request for answers.

The Hemp Act, which creates a 10-year research program through cultivation, passed the state House with only one nay vote, from Republican Rep. Andy Mayberry. (Republican Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest was present but did not cast a vote.) Hemp, which contains less than .3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, can be used for a number of products, including cosmetics, fibers and building materials. The U.S. Farm Bill of 2014 allows the growing of hemp as research. Hemp grown for research can also be marketed.

Dial said the Plant Board was told the state needed to "get registered with the DEA as an importer." Despite its low THC content, industrial hemp is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, subject to regulation by the DEA.

As in the medical cannabis program, questions have been raised about how to grow a previously illegal plant. Seeds may not be brought across state lines.

But Jason Martin, CEO of Tree of Life, an Arkansas-based hemp seed seller operating in six states and hoping to sell seeds in Arkansas, told the Arkansas Times that the seeds for medical marijuana will be "just showing up, too; like the 'hand of God,' that's the technical term." It doesn't make sense to treat hemp seeds differently, Martin said*. He added that he believed Hutchinson's questions were a delay tactic, since the seed issue has already been raised with medical marijuana and it appears that the Medical Marijuana Commission will simply turn a blind eye to the source.

Tree of Life is hosting a seminar, "Growing Industrial Hemp in Arkansas: Plant. Profit. Repeat," from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, at the Comfort Inn & Suites Presidential, 707 Interstate 30. Martin said Walker, who was going to speak at the seminar, will not attend.

*An editing error in a previous version of this story misrepresented Martin's quotes on medical marijuana seeds and hemp seeds.


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