Legalizing Hemp Will Likely Shake Up The Market

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ESTHER HONIG, BYLINE: The 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp after decades of restrictions. Hemp looks like marijuana and smells like marijuana. But it's not marijuana. Esther Honig of Harvest Public Media reports that hemp growers are now anticipating a boom.

HONIG: Farmers can already grow hemp in more than half the country. States like Colorado where Kristen Kunau grows it with her husband. Come December, most of what's left of her crop sits in her fridge. She pulls out a mason jar of thick dark syrup. Does that smell more hemp-like or?

KRISTEN KUNAU: Kind of. Kind of sweet.

HONIG: Yeah. But still a little - it smells like...

KUNAU: Cannabis.

HONIG: ...Marijuana.

KUNAU: Yeah.

HONIG: I'm always...

KUNAU: It is cannabis.

HONIG: This is CBD or cannabidiol. An oil made from hemp flowers. Unlike marijuana, there's hardly any THC. So it won't get you high. It's increasingly popular for its purported health benefits.

KUNAU: I gave it to my kids. I put it on my face, burns, cuts. We've had so many different people tell us how much it's helped them.

HONIG: CBD is driving the hemp market, which was once a common crop in the U.S. until lumped together with marijuana and banned in 1937. Then in 2014, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for hemp to be grown again as part of state-run research programs. This year, he pushed to remove hemp as a controlled substance.

KUNAU: With the Farm Bill passing and everything, we're going to be doing more full time.

HONIG: Like many of today's hemp farmers, the Kunaus have a small operation, just one acre. They also work day jobs. But with the law change, they can finally access bank accounts and low interest federal loans even to be eligible for crop insurance. It all comes at a time when the market for hemp CBD is booming.

JAMIE SCHAU: It's extremely versatile. It can be used for a whole host of different applications.

HONIG: That's Jamie Schau with Brightfield Group, a market research company. She says CBD is used in everything from lotions to sports drinks, even dog treats.

SCHAU: It has treatments for everything from epilepsy to MS to arthritis to anxiety, depression, insomnia. The list goes on and on and on.

ESTHER BLESSING: We don't know that. We don't have the clinical trial evidence to support that.

HONIG: Esther Blessing teaches psychiatry at NYU and is studying the effects of CBD on people with PTSD and alcohol abuse. The FDA recently approved CBD in a drug that treats a form of epilepsy but that's it. She says all the hype around CBD is getting ahead of the research.

BLESSING: But on the other hand, as a scientist, I really feel like it is one of the most promising medications that has come along in the last 50 years.

HONIG: Meanwhile, hemp growers like the Kunaus are bracing for change. The price for a pound of hemp flowers reached $75. But with legalization, that's likely to drop.

KUNAU: I do know everybody's going to be wanting to grow hemp and CBD. And this one acre is going to seem like nothing compared to people doing 10s and 30 or 50.

HONIG: As more hemp is planted in the country, she hopes falling prices don't squeeze out small farmers. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig.

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That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and rural issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.