The Missouri Department of Agriculture finalized rules governing an industrial hemp pilot program earlier this month, but critics argue the program is too restrictive.
A bill passed last year allowed the state to create a pilot program for industrial hemp growers. In July farmers argued the legislation did little to encourage people to grow industrial hemp because it restricted the number of growers to 40, with just 2,000 acres of industrial hemp statewide. With the department formulating rules for the program, farmers and legislators said little has changed in the state, even though last year's farm bill legalized industrial hemp at the federal level.
Chris Beedle, an Auxvasse entrepreneur who owns industrial hemp company Canna Ag, said he and his business partners are ready to plant 7,000 acres of industrial hemp. Industrial hemp has 25,000 uses, Beedle said. Mercedes and other car manufacturers now use industrial hemp composites in car doors and other parts of automobile interiors.
Clothes can also be made from hemp and the product even conducts electricity. As the department finalizes the rules and determines which farmers may grow industrial hemp, Beedle said it feels unfair to be stuck between state and federal law.
"I won't be federally charged, but I'll be charged at the state level," Beedle said. "When you look at the absurdity of it all, what the problem is they've decided the only reason it would be illegal on the federal level is because it is not state compliant."
The rules opened for public comment on Jan. 2 and closed Feb. 1. All proposed rules governing the program will take effect June 30, according to guidelines on the department's website.
In August the department will begin a series of meetings to review laws around industrial hemp. Applications for the pilot program will become available Sept. 3. Approved grower and handler applicants will be notified Oct. 31 and registration fees from handlers and growers will be due Nov. 30.
At a listening session last July, farmers held out hope they would be able to plant hemp in 2019. As Missouri suffered through one the worst droughts in recent memory, farmers, including Beedle, told representatives from the department that they saw hemp as a way to spark life in struggling farming towns.
When hemp industry advocates like Beedle look at the swift pace of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in crafting rules to govern medical marijuana use and cultivation, they feel left behind.
"We're going to have medical marijuana before having a law that went through the House and Senate," Beedle said. "You're not doing what your constituents want. I'm not understanding."
Part of this is the nature of the difference between legislation and an initiative petition.
Amendment 2, which legalized medical marijuana in November, laid out a timeline for implementation, allowing just 180 days for health and senior services to make applications and instructions available.
Last year's hemp bill lays out no such timeline for implementation.
Amendment 2 included revenue to fund its program, allowing marijuana entrepreneurs to prefile applications on Jan. 7, which provides fees to self-fund the program. As of Feb. 20, 434 medical marijuana applications and more than $3.1 million have been collected by DHSS, according to a news release.
State Rep. Rick Francis, R-Perryville, said the lack of funding to administer the program is why progress on hemp rules is taking so long. In recent years the Agriculture Department has been receiving smaller allotments of general revenue funds than in prior years, Francis said.
That has made the department increasingly dependent on fee-based programs.
"There's not the personnel there. There's not the technology," Francis said. "There's no one to oversee (the program)."
Under last year's law, dry industrial hemp grown in the state may have no more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. All hemp grown in the state will be subject to testing by independent laboratories, according to the proposed rules. Hemp with THC above the 0.3 percent THC threshold must be destroyed.
The bill also requires the state to set a system to monitor growers of hemp. Growers will be monitored using GPS, the proposed rules said.
Like many lawmakers, Francis is also a farmer. Francis introduced a bill this session that removes many of the regulations in last year's bill, including the caps on acreage and growers.
The bill was referred to the House Agricultural Policy committee Feb. 20. Francis, the vice chairman of the committee, anticipates the bill will be heard in two weeks.
Like many industrial hemp proponents, Francis and Beedle point to the success of pilot programs in Kentucky and Tennessee. Nationwide, 41 states allow industrial hemp cultivation. One day Francis envisions growing hemp without all the red tape that will protect the program in its infancy.
"I can see in a decade we'll peel the rules off of it and growing industrial hemp will be like we do with corn and soybeans today," Francis said.