Bringing Hemp to Illinois

Thanks to Illinois Senate Bill 2298, a billion dollar industry cannabis crop may be coming to Illinois, and it has nothing to do with legal marijuana. The bill that passed unanimously through the Illinois Senate, and if signed into law by Governor Rauner, would legalize the growth, cultivation, and processing of industrial hemp in Illinois.

Hemp products have always been available in stores nationwide, from organic hemp rope to full-spectrum CBD oils to candles. So it can be confusing or unclear what exactly this bill has changed in Illinois regarding hemp. So let’s break it down.  What is the state of hemp in the US, exactly what will this law change, and how could that affect industries and workers in Illinois?

What is Hemp?

Hemp is a plant in the Cannabis sativa family. Though it has none of the psychoactive THC cannabinoid found in other cannabis plants, it is a useful material in a wide variety of products.

Hemp has been used for thousands of years to create textiles like yarn or clothes or paper. It is also used to make plastics, cosmetics, oils, lotions and even as a fuel source. Recently hemp plants have also become a major source of the growing CBD market. CBD stores or apothecaries carry full-spectrum hemp oils or tinctures that boast a variety of medicinal benefits from the non-psychoactive cannabinoids. Hemp is legal in the U.S. and most of these products have always been available for purchase in stores throughout the country. However, hemp production and cultivation remains federally prohibited. As a result hemp products are available in the US but mostly imported. According to the National Hemp Association, the US imports approximately 300 million dollars worth of hemp products yearly. Worldwide Austria, China and India are some of the biggest exporters of hemp into the US, which ends up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for businesses that rely on foreign exporters to adhere to US restrictions.

Why was it Illegal?

The hemp plant is a member of the cannabis Sativa family.  However, it contains very little THC, the psychoactive element in other cannabis plants. Where a psychoactive cannabis plant grown for recreational or medicinal consumption are usually female and range from 10-30%THC, hemp cannabis crops are male and contain less than 0.5%THC. Despite the fact that hemp plants do not yield psychoactive cannabis, hemp is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the DEA, meaning it has a high risk of abuse.

There are a few reasons for this other than the genetic relation and physical resemblance of hemp plants to cannabis plants with higher THC content. Though hemp plants do not flower like cannabis plants, being mostly male plants, some regulators say it is still possible to breed marijuana plants out of hemp plants. And though THC content in hemp is minimal (less than 1%) the DEA places strict limits on how much THC content is allowable and tests every hemp plant imported or grown in the US. Therefore hemp production has become prohibited as a means of enforcing marijuana prohibition, but it is at the expense of business owners, customer and farmers alike.

In 2014 a Federal Farm bill passed that made it easier for states to license hemp cultivation

through the Department of Agriculture rather than, the federal government giving limited l.,licenses through the DEA. It allows state and university pilot programs to grow industrial hemp with less than 0.3 percent THC content. That is what allows Illinois to pass and regulate its own industrial hemp laws, as long as they are in line with federal restrictions.

What does SB2298 change?

Illinois Senate Bill 2298 passed with a nearly unanimous vote through the state senate. It is easy to see why given there is little to no opposition to growing hemp, and it comes with no legal risk thanks to the 2014 Federal Farm Bill. What the bill actually does is mostly technical. It removes industrial hemp plants from listed substances under the Cannabis Control Act so it is no longer a restricted substance. It also removes it from the Noxious Weed Act, making it completely legal to grow in any commercial farming area. It even allows hemp seeds to be purchased, produced and cultivated locally rather than imported.

Most importantly, the bill sets up a licensure system through the Illinois Department of Agriculture.  Licensed Illinois farmers will have access to grow, cultivate, process, and sell hemp crops. Presumably, any commercial farmer with enough land can apply to begin growing and selling hemp locally. This licensing system goes beyond allowing hemp cultivation to creating an infrastructure for it. These few clerical changes can set up an entire industry that could bring in new revenue for the state’s large agricultural industry, and even create space for new businesses.

How does this change the industry?

While farmers do not believe hemp is a game changer (corn and soybeans still remain the highest demand crops in the state), they are glad for the ability to diversify land use and introduce a new crop that is easy to grow in Midwest climates. SB2298 had full endorsement from the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance that supports local farmers.

There is absolutely a demand for hemp products, and being sourced locally can both increase the quality of products while making huge profits. Particularly in CBD markets, which is one of the fastest growing (and completely legal) industries in the country. The Hemp Business Journal estimates that hemp-based CBD will become a 2.1 billion dollar market by 2020, but currently, most of that product comes from China or Austria. This law not only allows Illinois farmers to see those profits but creates opportunities in processing and manufacturing of hemp plants into CBD oils and other products.

When hemp is grown and available locally, it will become much easier and much cheaper to refine and process locally.  Rather than importing already refined hemp products, manufacturers and sellers will start refining hemp into textiles or plastics or tincture right here in Illinois. The versatility of hemp to create so many different products will effectively create that many more jobs when it is available and legal to work with in the state. The industry of hemp production could provide many new jobs, cheaper products for local retailers, and high demand for Illinois farmers.

Kohl Neal