TALLAHASSEE — Hemp has been hyped as a lifesaver for Florida farmers, touted as a versatile crop that can be used to build houses, feed livestock and create clothing.
But it’s the plant’s healing qualities that have sparked a second cannabis “green rush,” as the state’s hemp program gets off the ground.
The nationwide craze for products containing CBD is evident at supermarkets, gas stations and big-box stores, where lotions, tinctures and bath “bombs” are among the items flying off the shelves as consumers seek to quell anxiety, aches and pains and a host of other ailments.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of the cannabinoids found in the plant cannabis sativa. What differentiates hemp from its cannabis cohort marijuana is the amount of euphoria-inducing THC.
State and federal law defines “industrial hemp” as cannabis that has 0.3 percent or less tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC; cannabis plants that have more than that amount of euphoria-inducing THC are marijuana.
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Congress last year decriminalized industrial hemp as an agricultural product, allowing states like Florida to begin regulating the plant that’s been around for 10,000 years.
Following up on the federal action, Florida lawmakers this authorized a statewide hemp program and gave oversight of the crop to Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Fried, a Broward County Democrat elected in November, had already branded herself as the Sunshine State’s cannabis queen, making expanded patient access to medical marijuana a cornerstone of her campaign last year and continuing that crusade since taking office in January.
Fried in February appointed Holly Bell as the state’s first “director of cannabis,” three months before the Legislature handed hemp over to the agriculture agency.
While hemp can be grown for myriad purposes, Bell said she expects most Florida growers to cultivate flowering plants that will be used for CBD extraction, at least at the outset.
“The demand for the hemp crop is in the CBD crop right now, so that’s what the farmers will grow,” Bell said in a telephone interview this week.
Bell, a former banker who took over as Florida’s cannabis czar after playing a role in Tennessee’s hemp industry, said market research shows countrywide demand for hemp is anticipated to be “in the high double digits over the next few years.”
She estimates that as many as 3,000 growers will line up when agriculture department begins accepting applications for the program.
Widespread interest in hemp was evident this summer, when 900 people flocked to three rule-making workshops as Fried’s department crafts regulations to govern the industry.
Bell and other enthusiasts extol medicinal qualities of CBD.
“I tell people it’s the new ibuprofen. It comes from a plant, and doesn’t affect your liver the way ibuprofen does,” said Bell, adding that she’s used it to reduce her blood pressure and relieve arthritis-related pain.
Despite its cult-like popularity and skyrocketing use, CBD hasn’t received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for medicinal use. And the federal agency is cracking down on purveyors of CBD products.
The agency on Monday sent a warning to Curaleaf, one of the nation’s largest medical marijuana companies, for selling “unapproved new and misbranded human drug products,” such as vape pens, and claiming that the products relieve maladies such as chronic pain. Curaleaf is one of 23 licensed medical marijuana operators in Florida.
Under Florida’s new system, hemp extract produced in the state will have to undergo third-party testing to make sure it is safe for human consumption.
To participate in the hemp program, farmers have to be licensed by Fried’s department. Under state and federal law, hemp growers can only use seeds and cultivars that are “certified by a certifying agency” or a university participating in an industrial hemp pilot project.
Bell said she expects the state’s initial hemp farmers to start off small, with five- to 25-acre fields, so they can get acclimated to a plant that hasn’t been grown legally in Florida for almost a century.
That’s where Sunshine Hemp’s Mike Kelley comes in. Kelly was one of the founders of Kentucky-based GenCanna Global, one of the country’s largest hemp producers.
Sunshine Hemp has teamed with Florida A&M University in a research pilot project, authorized by Fried’s department, focused on engineering hemp that’s designed to thrive in Florida.
“These plants do not like wet feet, so people are going to have to be very mindful of where they plant them, as far as Florida rains,” Kelley said. “And then we have an insect issue that surpasses any other state.”
Kelley is hoping to have millions of seeds that can withstand Florida’s bugs, rain and humidity available for hemp growers by the time the state’s program is fully operational. That could be as early as the end of the year, according to Bell.
Because of the “explosive growth in interest” in CBD products, “there’s a huge shortage” of hemp seeds, according to Kelley, whose Sunshine Hemp partners include Tallahassee lobbyist Jeff Sharkey.
“That’s where Florida growers are going to need to find the right seeds for Florida, at a price point that works. The prices on these seeds are going up exponentially,” Kelley said during a telephone interview while he was overseeing work in the field of a Kentucky farm.
The hemp program is the second wave of a “green rush” that’s engulfed Florida, where medical marijuana operators are routinely selling licenses for upwards of $50 million, less than three years after voters legalized medical pot.
But cultivators like Kelly have done their best to separate hemp from its sister plant in a variety of ways, including the nomenclature to describe the plants.
For example, types of hemp are referred to by their “genetics,” rather than “strains,” as in the marijuana arena. Instead of the term “mother plant” used in the pot industry, they’re called “stock plants” in the world of hemp.
Once the plants are harvested, they’ll have to be processed by facilities that will also be overseen by Fried’s agency. Processors are starting to set up shop in the state.
Like Bell, Kelley said he’s seen a shift in attitudes toward hemp and CBD since he first got into the industry five years ago, when “the stigma was really high.”
“That’s when everybody was still standoffish about hemp” and didn’t understand the difference between hemp and marijuana, Kelley said.
But the perception about CBD, and hemp, has changed.
“It works. For people with pain and mental stress and stuff like that, it really works,” he said.
Stay on top of Orlando news and views. Sign up for our weekly Headlines newsletter.