UH could lead charge on hemp research

Ka Leo - March 31, 2014
Alex Bitter

The marijuana plant’s less-potent cousin and its industrial uses could become the focus for researchers at the University of Hawai‘i if one state legislator has his way.

The proposal would charge the dean of UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources with creating a research program that would spend two years looking at the possible uses of industrial hemp in Hawai‘i and report its findings to the legislature.
It would also legally disassociate the plant, which has leaves that look similar to those of marijuana, from its relative.

The bill, introduced by State Sen. Mike Gabbard, has already won near-unanimous approval from the state senate and is being considered by committees in the house, although at least two police departments in the state have announced their opposition to the measure.

Gabbard said the ultimate goal of his bill would be to establish a hemp industry in Hawai‘i that involves the production of hemp-based products, which can range from lip balm to handbags, at the level of local farms and small businesses.

“This could be a cottage industry,” he said. “I just see a huge amount of potential in this.”

He said the bill he initially introduced at the beginning of the legislative session would have legalized the plant, but the bill was amended in a senate committee to focus on research possibilities at CTAHR.

One of the main uses of hemp that the proposal highlights is the plant’s ability to absorb toxic compounds from the soil it’s grown in — a process called phytoremediation.

That process may help remove chemicals bound into the soil from pesticides used during the plantation era, the bill suggests.
“The nutrient uptake process leaves a clean, balanced and nutrient-rich soil, which can then be safely used for agriculture or improving conservation habitats,” the bill says.

The proposal also cites the potential to use the crop to produce biodiesel and reduce Hawai‘i’s dependence on imported fuels.
Gabbard said the process has made hemp an effective tool in cleaning up contaminated land, from sites of chemical spills to soil contaminated by radioactive elements by the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in modern-day Ukraine.

If the legislature approves Gabbard’s bill, it won’t be the first time UH has studied hemp.

In the late 1990s, UH received state funding to begin the Hawai‘i Industrial Research Hemp Project. The project was run by researchers, including CTAHR faculty, who looked at various uses of hemp in Hawai‘i, as well as what varieties of the plant were best suited to the state’s climate.

Harry Ako, chair of UH’s Department of Molecular Biosciences and Bioengineering and a participant in the project, said the group ultimately found that a Chinese variety of the plant grew best in Hawai‘i.

He said the project confirmed hemp’s phytoremediation abilities, which come from the plant’s ability to absorb toxins in the soil and convert them to plant hormones.

Ultimately, the project came to an end when its state funding did in 2003.

“When there’s no funding, things stop,” he said.

Gabbard’s bill currently doesn’t appropriate any money for UH to undertake new hemp research, though the senator said he is working to secure some money from the legislature.

Despite the potential benefits of the plant, both the Honolulu and Maui County police departments have testified against the measure.

A letter submitted by the Maui Police Department earlier this month expressed worry about the implications for authorities if the project involves hemp cultivation by private citizens vetted by UH.

It states that police do not have chemical analysis tests that would allow them to differentiate hemp from marijuana based on tetrahydrocannabinol levels, thus making it difficult for them to enforce anti-marijuana statutes currently on the books.

Until the 1980s, many state laws didn’t recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana and gave those in possession of either similar penalties.

Eric Steenstra, president of the advocacy group Vote Hemp, said those laws were written in the 1930s and 1940s, when the psychoactive effects of THC were becoming widely known.

Although scientists at the time were able to study the effects that THC had on people who consumed it, Steenstra said they had not yet identified the compound or that marijuana has much higher levels of it than hemp does.

“They couldn’t distinguish the difference,” he said.

Acting on worries about the potential impact of cannabis products on crime, the federal Bureau of Narcotics started requiring growers of both plants to register their crops — an action that Steenstra said discouraged many farmers who were already growing hemp.
Now, he said, bills authorizing research into hemp and its uses have been introduced in 23 states this year — a sign, he said, that hemp cultivation is gaining traction in the U.S.

“We’re only going to see more interest in this,” he said.

The bill has passed the state senate and is scheduled to be heard by the house judicial committee Tuesday.