Industrial hemp could be used to expand the economy of rural Oklahoma and as a core ingredient in products such as biofuels, plastics, batteries and cloth, a legislative panel was told this week.
Speaking at a state Senate hearing Monday, former state Rep. Bruce Niemi, the president of the Oklahoma Industrial Hemp Foundation, told lawmakers it was time to expand the market for industrial hemp in Oklahoma.
“The goal is to create an industry here,” he said.
Niemi urged lawmakers to create an oversight group, the Oklahoma Industrial Hemp Commission, during the next legislative session. “We see today that hemp is a viable product,” he said. “It fits in well with the USDA’s efforts to create products from sustainable materials.”
‘A great deal of misunderstanding’ about marijuana, hemp plants
Kenny Naylor, director of Consumer Protection Services for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, said industrial hemp could be used in many ways but added there was “a great deal of misunderstanding” about marijuana and hemp plants.
“They’re basically the same plant,” he said. “It depends on the THC concentration.”
While medical marijuana is regulated by the state’s Medical Marijuana Authority, hemp is regulated by the Department of Agriculture and has a much lower THC content. Naylor said the state has struggled to manage the medical marijuana industry.
This summer, during an appearance at the Oklahoma Press Association’s annual convention, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said he was concerned by growth of organized crime in the medical marijuana industry.
Drummond said several national organized crime groups have set up operations in Oklahoma to take advantage of medical marijuana production laws. He said Chinese nationals have purchased more than 200,000 acres of Oklahoma farmland.
Why industrial hemp could be an economic boom for Oklahoma
Still, while medical marijuana continues to present challenges for lawmakers, many believe industrial hemp could, over time, bring economic rewards.
Industrial hemp doesn’t have the same problems because the number of growers is smaller and hemp is regulated by the state, tribal governments and the USDA. Naylor said the number of grow operations for industrial hemp had declined because of a saturation of the market, the pandemic and the small number of processors.
But that decline could be reversing.
Bijoy Thomas, a scientist with Omega Thermal Systems of Independence, Kansas, told the panel his company designs factories that convert hemp byproducts, trash or other household waste into carbon fiber materials.
“We originally worked to take waste wood and convert it for use for bio-generation,” he said. But there is a big potential with industrial hemp. You take the water out, dehydrate it and then chemically transform (the) material to change it into a high carbon structure.”
The product, he said, is resistant to decomposition and can be molded and used for many other projects. “That’s where we think that hemp can be used,” he said.
The two state senators conducting the hearing said they hoped to see the state’s industrial hemp market grow — in the right way.
“There are currently only 21 licensed growers in the state, and I hope that we will see that number grow in the coming years to benefit our state’s industries and local economies,” state Sen. Roland Pederson, R-Burlington, said.
Pederson’s co-chair, Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, said she wanted to see hemp used as a sustainable way to make other products and, at the same time, see the state’s hemp industry develop properly.
“I feel like on the medical marijuana side we’ve struggled to grow that industry the right way,” she said. “With industrial hemp, we’re trying to move to a more renewable product. That’s the one thing that hemp brings to the picture. But we want to see the industry develop in the right way.”