Staff Columnist

Iowa set to miss out on hemp revolution

Unless Legislature acts, Iowa will sit out of booming new industry

Lawmakers are poised to fully legalize hemp after a decades-long campaign. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
Lawmakers are poised to fully legalize hemp after a decades-long campaign. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

The new farm bill will legalize hemp production at the federal level. Business and agriculture leaders are bullish on the versatile crop’s future, but if Iowa lawmakers don’t act, our state may not harvest the benefits.

Hemp has thousands of useful manufacturing, agricultural and therapeutic applications. The plant and its byproducts can be used to remove toxins from the soil, replace durable building materials and even develop advanced batteries. Some estimate it soon will be a $1 billion U.S. industry.

This is not marijuana and it will not make you high. Unfortunately, federal laws governing hemp are enduring relics from political moments even stupider than our own.

For much of American history, hemp cultivation was legal and even sometimes encouraged by the government, but federal laws passed last century heavily restricted hemp production. With no scientific basis, the Nixon-era Controlled Substances Act classified all cannabis plants, including hemp, as dangerous drugs.

The federal farm bill approved by Congress this week lifts the federal ban on hemp production and directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop regulations. However, federal law won’t get rid of outdated state laws against hemp, like Iowa’s.

Iowa Code still defines marijuana as “all parts of the plants of the genus cannabis,” which includes hemp, but exempts “mature stalks.” The law also specifically excludes cannabis from the definition of “agricultural seeds.” That means Iowans can buy hemp products grown elsewhere, but not from our own farmers, the best growers in the world.

Already, most states are ahead of Iowa by participating in limited hemp research programs authorized by the 2014 federal farm bill. A bill in the Iowa Legislature this year to launch a hemp pilot project was approved unanimously in the state Senate. However, the state House — where Republican leaders have resisted anything resembling drug reform — didn’t advance Senate File 2398 before the session closed.


Meanwhile across the country, support for hemp prohibition has subsided to a whimper. Leaders from both parties were instrumental in securing hemp in the farm bill. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell championed the change, even though he is steadfastly opposed to broader cannabis legalization.

This should be an easy bipartisan victory for Iowa policymakers. None of Iowa’s influential agriculture groups officially lobbied for or against Iowa’s hemp bill last year, but the national Farm Bureau Federation has advocated for hemp legalization. Both the Iowa Democratic Party and the Republican Party of Iowa platforms include planks supporting hemp legalization.

Even under overbearing government restrictions on hemp production, U.S. retails sales of hemp products totaled nearly $700 million in 2016, according to the Hemp Industries Association. There’s no doubt that figure will balloon under federal legalization.

Will Iowa farmers, processors and consumers benefit from the coming hemp boom, or will we let other states claim our share? That choice will be made this year at the Statehouse.

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