BLOOMINGTON — Illinois farmers could benefit if the state approves a law allowing them to grow industrial hemp, supporters say, but questions remain after a similar measure failed last year.
The Illinois Farm Bureau backs a bill in the state Senate that would let local farmers grow the plant, a less-potent form of marijuana, on a regulated basis — but a similar proposal passed the Senate in 2017 only to die in the House.
“The bill didn’t succeed last year because there is some concern from the medical marijuana community that some of the products made from industrial hemp might also be made from medical marijuana,” said Bill Bodine, associate director of state legislation for the Bloomington-based IFB. "Because of that gray area, it was tough to get it all defined.”
Supporters continue to press the issue, however, because officials think it can provide a much-needed boost for agriculture, including in Central Illinois.
“It allows farmers to diversify because it’s a different crop than they’ve traditionally been growing,” said Bodine.
“It may be an alternative to corn and soybeans depending on the way market prices move,” added Tim Stock, executive vice president of the Decatur-based Macon County Farm Bureau.
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Stock and Mike Swartz, manager of the McLean County Farm Bureau, said they're not aware of local farmers who are eager to grow hemp, but Bodine said that's at least partially because no market can develop as long as it's illegal to grow hemp locally.
“Industrial hemp is used for all types of different things: fiber-based products like rope, fabrics, some resins and plastics. There are also opportunities for possible food products, and the oils can be used much like vegetable oils,” said Bodine. "It’s not that the market will materialize overnight, but there are a lot of opportunities for growth.”
One example of the market for hemp is nearby: Global Hemp, a Peoria company that sells hemp products online.
The company promotes and researches the product, too. Its president, Eric Pollitt, also is president of the Illinois chapter of the Hemp Industries Association, a nonprofit trade association, and he sits on the board of the national organization.
"The first thing we’ve got to do is educate people that marijuana and hemp are not one and the same,” said Pollitt. “Hemp has no drug value at all. But it can be used for a lot of other things."
Another use is cannabidiol, or CBD oil, a product produced by pressing the leaves of cannabis plants, whether they're hemp or marijuana. Pollitt said the growing market for CBD has put backers of marijuana and hemp at odds.
He hopes they can work out the issue and allow both products to be grown and sold in Illinois, however. The association currently is contesting in court a federal regulation that says marijuana extracts like CBD are controlled substances.
Pollitt noted that Kentucky, which has a thriving hemp industry, has no competing medical marijuana industry.
“We would devour what Kentucky has done if allowed to,” he said of Illinois. "We’re almost at the goal line."
The proposal is Senate Bill 2298. It's unrelated to a proposal that would legalize recreational marijuana.