Cannabis in PA

How hemp’s new legal status could transform dozens of PA industries

This year’s Farm Show featured cannabis sunglasses, kitty litter, interior vehicle panels, building materials and more.

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Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn
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“Is that honey with marijuana?”

Nick Perna is used to questions like that. The “Don’t Smoke the Honey” signage on his Pennsylvania Farm Show booth basically invites them.

Via his Truly Pure & Natural business, Perna sells raw honey from Chester County infused with dozens of ingredients. One happens to be hemp protein. He’s happy to explain the differences between hemp and its better-known cousin marijuana, and to point out the benefits of the former — namely a lot of protein and fiber.

Hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis sativa plant and contain cannabinoids including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient that gets people high. Industrial hemp is bred with at most 0.3 percent THC, while marijuana’s concentration runs from the single digits to 30 percent, depending on the strain.

“You can eat a tractor trailer load at 0.3 percent and it won’t affect you at all,” Perna said, noting that he imports hemp protein powder with no detectable THC from Canada.

Perna was one of only a few vendors at the Farm Show who were selling hemp products when Billy Penn visited this week. But that could radically change in the next few years.

In December, President Trump signed a Farm Bill that legalized hemp by removing it from the federal controlled substances list. Once a haven for hemp growers, Pennsylvania is now poised to return to its roots. William Penn himself was a big fan.

And while hemp can’t get you stoned, it can do a whole lot of other things.

Revitalization for Reading and more

On its Farm Show table, the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council displayed about a dozen products, including sunglasses, kitty litter, an interior vehicle panel, and building materials like hempcrete.

Les Stark is a founding member of the organization, a hemp historian, and a longterm advocate for legalization. He was key in the passage of the Industrial Hemp Act, which allowed the crop to be grown for research purposes in Pa.

In 2017, the state approved 16 projects (including a few from the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council) and capped acreage devoted to hemp at five max. By the next year, that number grew to 39 approved permits and nearly 1,000 collective acres.

The Department of Agriculture received 82 applications for 2019, with 60 permits available. According to Stark, the state plans to approve all of them with the passage of the Farm Bill. (A spokesperson did not respond to request for comment.)

Farmers who want to grow hemp will still need a license from the state, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said on Lancaster Farming‘s podcast, but there won’t be a cap on how many people can produce it. The application process has yet to reopen, and a message on the department’s site says it “will consider our options relative to how hemp production will be carried out” in the coming weeks.

Legal hemp won’t just benefit farmers. In an interview with KYW NewsRadio, Redding said Philadelphia’s expertise in chemistry, distribution, finance, and manufacturing could play a role in a burgeoning hemp industry.

“They’re the elements that take industrial from where we are today and make it be a really viable and financially significant and meaningful crop for Pennsylvania,” he said.

Stark has been preaching the good word about hemp for years — how it could rescue family farms, bring back manufacturing jobs, and save the planet. He couldn’t divulge too many details, but told Billy Penn there are plans to open a hemp processing plant in Reading, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest cities. Once established, it could employ roughly 250 people, he said, and process 14,000 acres of hemp from nearby farms.

Previously, it was difficult to attract investment to Pennsylvania because of the state’s limited program and the small number of acres devoted to the crop, Stark said. He’s still preaching caution, as the industry will need time to grow.

“I don’t recommend 1,000 farmers go out and grow 1,000 acres.”

Philly Health Dept. has ‘no concerns’

If you know anything about hemp, it’s probably because of CBD.

CBD, which can be extracted from hemp or marijuana, is seemingly everywhere, including in oils, creams, and even soda. Limited research and plenty of anecdotes indicate it can help with seizures, inflammation, and anxiety.

Growing hemp is now legal, and oversight of its extracts has been moved from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Food and Drug Administration.

In a statement after the Farm Bill’s passage, the FDA gave the stamp of approval to hulled hemp seeds, hemp seed protein and hemp seed oil. But it warned that selling food and drink that contains CBD is still not permitted.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped companies, thanks to lax oversight. When Little Baby’s sold ice cream with CBD oil last year, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health told Billy Penn they “had no concerns.”

Even with the muddy legality, $534 million worth of CBD oil was sold in the U.S. last year, according to the cannabis analytics firm New Frontier Data. There are already CBD storefronts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The possibilities for hemp, though, go way beyond CBD. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. imported $67.3 million worth of hemp seeds and fibers in 2017, and demand is growing.

Said Stark: “This new Farm Bill was a game-changer, for sure.”

Want some more? Explore other Cannabis in PA stories.

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