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Curtman still looking for final vote on industrial hemp bill


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Rep. Paul Curtman has pushed a bill to legalize industrial hemp for the past three years, and it has withered away on the Senate informal calendar for the past two.

“We’ve routinely been able to get this bill through the Senate committee,” Curtman says. “Usually what happens is it gets through the Senate committee in April or early May and it comes down to just needing a vote in the Senate.”

But the vote never comes. Instead, it gets passed over or missed by Senate leadership, despite strong support in the House and in committees of both chambers. Last year, Curtman’s industrial hemp bill passed out of the House 123-29, an overwhelming majority from a bipartisan coalition.

Rep. Paul Curtman speaking on the House floor March 15, 2017. (Ben Peters/MISSOURI TIMES)
Rep. Paul Curtman speaking on the House floor March 15, 2017. (Ben Peters/MISSOURI TIMES)

Industrial hemp has various uses that use all parts of the plant, from the fiber and seeds to the woody part of the plant called the hurd. The seeds usually make hempseed oil, which is high in unsaturated fats considered by many nutritionists to be healthy. Hemp fiber is used in textiles. And the hurd can be made into anything from plastics to paper to brake pads, because of its insulation properties. More uses can be read in this 1991 report to the Missouri House of Representatives by Richard Lawrence Miller.

To Hyatt Bangert, of the Midwest Industrial Hemp Association, the bill should be a no-brainer in a state that prides itself on its agricultural sector.

“Here we are in Missouri in one of the best agricultural areas of the country,” he says. “We should be at the front, not trailing everybody else.”

In fact, hemp used to be grown in abundance in the state. According to a 2014 report from the Marshall Democrat-News, Lafayette, Saline, Clay and Howard Counties used to grow tons of the crop in the 1800s. Missouri was also near the forefront of the Hemp for Victory campaign during World War II due to the need for alternative fibers during that time period. The crop only saw declines in those respective periods because cotton from the South was cheaper and fulfilled many of the same roles, and later because of the stigmatization of hemp as a close relative of ingestible marijuana as a dangerous substance. In fact, John Curtis of BeLeaf, a company that that makes cannabinoid oils for epilepsy patients, says wild hemp, known as ditchweed still grows in some parts of Missouri.

Hemp and marijuana both come from the same plant, but they have a major difference. Curtis said also notes that the perception of hemp being the same thing as ingestible marijuana has definitely harmed the industry, but that in terms of use, the two are quite different.

“Industrial hemp does not have enough [THC] to have any sort of psychoactive effect,” Curtis says. “The THC in industrial hemp must be .3 percent or less which is so low as to make it completely useless to the black market.”

Curtis added that cannabis plants used to make marijuana cannot be grown alongside or hidden within industrial hemp production farms because cross-pollination would make the plants intended for marijuana to take on the same low THC quality, making it worthless as a drug.

Still, that scarlet letter of sorts has continued to plague industrial hemp. Curtman says most of his job negotiating the bill with his fellow legislators is assuaging those concerns.

“There’s always been this stigma that industrial hemp is somehow related to narcotic use because it’s from the same kind of plant,” Curtman says. “It takes a lot of work just talking to people just to make sure they feel comfortable voting for it and that they’re not going to be branded as some kind of crazy, let’s-legalize-all-drugs person.”

The other major factor that drives Curtman’s passion for the bill is his libertarian, market-focused viewpoint. Curtman often speaks on the floor about the effects of markets and how to ensure a better market in line with capitalist ideals. Missouri hemp processing plants currently need to import their industrial hemp from all over the world. Canada, China, and the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe can legally cultivate the plant, and even some other states are getting in on the act.

Curtman says this causes Missouri farmers to send their money out of state and even out of country.

“It makes absolutely no sense to force our farmers to buy their raw materials from other states when we should just free our farmers to be able to grow it,” he says.

For his part, Bangert already has a plan in place to set up some of the infrastructure necessary to create a genuine industrial hemp market in the state. He has spoken with many local farmers, touting hemp’s ability to serve as strong ground cover as well as a profitable crop, much like soy. He also has plans for a co-op type organization with as many as 20 processing plants ready to be set up in places dotted across the state, each one covering a radius of a few thousand square miles.

With states like Kentucky, Colorado and North Dakota all pursuing industrial hemp, Bangert says Missouri should act sooner rather than later. He’s ready for the General Assembly to pull the trigger on industrial hemp.

“We think the state’s really poised to put this together,” he says.

Curtman’s bill currently sits on the House calendar for perfection.