Colorado Cultivars Hemp Farm harvests hemp on Sept. 5, 2017 in Eaton, Colorado. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Wisconsin considers returning to its hemp farming powerhouse roots

MADISON, Wis. — Republican lawmakers made the case Tuesday for a bill that would allow Wisconsin farmers to grow hemp, stressing that the plant shouldn’t be confused with marijuana and that farmers should be given the option to raise another profitable crop.

Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Patrick Testin told reporters during a news conference ahead a public hearing on the measure that the proposal would give hope to farmers.

“The message from a united agriculture community is this: We’ve led the nation in hemp production in the past. It’s time we lead again,” Testin said.

Hemp and marijuana are both forms of cannabis, but hemp lacks enough THC, marijuana’s active ingredient, to get people high. Hemp can be used to make a variety of products, including clothing, rope, food and plastics.

Wisconsin was once one of the nation’s top hemp producers. It produced three-quarters of domestic hemp during World War II before demand plummeted and China took control of the market.

The 2014 Farm Bill gave the states the right to run hemp research programs. At least 30 states, including neighboring Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois, have since passed legislation allowing hemp cultivation in light of the federal act, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under the Wisconsin bill, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection could issue licenses to farmers looking to grow industrial hemp. People with drug convictions wouldn’t be eligible.

The plants couldn’t contain more than 1 percent THC. They could contain up to 1.5 percent THC if the farmer uses state-certified seeds developed by DATCP, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Crop Improvement Administration.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and the Wisconsin Farmers Union support the bill. No groups have registered in opposition. The bill has bipartisan support in the Assembly and the Senate.

“It’s really about returning an opportunity to Wisconsin farmers,” farm bureau President Jim Holte said during the news conference. “I hope we can move past the myths surrounding industrial hemp and concentrate on the facts.”

Asked whether farmers might hide marijuana plants in their hemp crop, Kremer said hemp would cross-pollinate with marijuana so quickly that the marijuana’s quality would be diluted and rendered less valuable.

The Senate’s agriculture committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill Tuesday afternoon. Testin aide Jeff Schultz offered edible hemp bars at the news conference and handed them out to committee members before the meeting began.

Wisconsin Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell said it appears Schultz didn’t violate any ethical guidelines because both the public and lawmakers were offered the bars for free and they appear to be intended as props rather than gifts.

The committee was scheduled to take up several bills ahead of the hemp legislation. It was unclear when testimony on the measure would begin.

Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at @trichmond1