Marijuana came to mind as I watched the wheat segment on my favorite Oklahoma farm show, “Sunup TV,” last week.
As Oklahoma State University producer Dave Deken got details from an agronomist on current wheat health, it occurred to me that the agriculturalists are having to play catch-up on the science of cannabis.
Overshadowed by the June medical marijuana statewide vote was the April approval of a law allowing universities and colleges to do hemp research.
The Oklahoma Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, created by House Bill 2913, is intended to encourage the study of the plant as a cash crop for the state.
Before getting excited about Deken reporting on how to grow weed, know that hemp and marijuana are not the same thing.
Though both come from the cannabis species, there are significant differences.
Hemp has less than 0.75 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, which provides pot’s psychoactive effect. That means no amount of hemp will get a person stoned.
The federal government recognized the distinctions until the 1970 Controlled Substances Act outlawed marijuana and hemp. Though, hemp cultivation had been falling since the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act made production expensive.
During World War II, the U.S. government pulled back its policy when imported hemp was halted. It created a “Hemp for Victory” campaign film to stir the patriotism among farmers and get them to plant cannabis for industrial fibers.
Oklahoma farmers joined the movement, which may be why wild hemp patches are found on occasion.
After the war, the government returned to its anti-pot position and eventually banned research into effects of cannabis.
After decades of advocacy and lawsuits, hemp made a comeback as industries found thousands of uses — from construction materials to oils and cosmetics.
The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill kicked the door open to academic centers for conducting research on cannabis plants with the THC levels of hemp. Oklahoma’s new law is in line with the federal guidelines.
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Even though Oklahomans approved medical marijuana, that doesn’t extend to state higher education.
Oklahoma schools receiving federal funding cannot do research on marijuana because it is still banned by the federal government.
“We simply can’t do it,” said Dr. Tom Coon, vice president of OSU’s division of agricultural sciences and natural resources. “We don’t have a research program on medical marijuana and (I) don’t foresee us having one so long as it is a class 1 controlled substance.”
The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry issues licenses to academic institutions for an industrial hemp program.
OSU is not planning to apply for a license at this time, Coon said.
State budget cuts have made adding a cannabis expert nearly impossible. In the past three years, the division has been cut by $13.5 million and lost 60 faculty members.
“Right now, we don’t have a soil chemist and haven’t had one in three years,” Coon said. “The state receives $5.5 billion of revenue on payment for livestock and gets about $2 billion from wheat. Those are crops I’ve really got to be addressing. I have some really critical needs.”
That doesn’t mean OSU is ignoring the possibilities or demands from farmers and businesses.
It is collecting information to develop a hemp commercial growth program for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. A plan is expected by the year’s end.
“We are looking to answer questions, not produce a product,” Coon said. “There are a lot of folks wanting to grow a product, and that’s fine. That’s not our mission or our budget circumstance.”
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Hemp and marijuana are genetically different.
Medical marijuana plants produce higher levels of THC found in leaves and tissues, making a bushy plant. Hemp is a tall, spindly plant with few leaves.
Both have a similar smell, which is why students involved in the hemp program at Redlands Community College in El Reno carry the license on them.
Redlands was quick to apply for a license to bolster its sustainable agriculture programs, said President Jack Bryant. Langston University also has a license.
“We are so far behind other countries on the research of industrial hemp,” Bryant said. “What we are looking for is how viable it is as an Oklahoma crop. We want to see impacts in different parts of the state under different conditions. Commercialism is down the road. ”
The program requires academic institutions have the crop sold before planting. Redlands has a partnership with Oklahoma City-based Botanac LLC, which also works as a liaison with farmers.
At least 60 farmers showed up for the Redlands first information session, many interested in hemp as a rotation crop. The school has fielded hundreds of additional calls.
Redlands planted 1,000 acres across Oklahoma this year. Students are sent to gather samples of soil, plant clippings and other elements for various tests.
Because the law passed late in the growing cycle, much of the Redlands crops will have a fall harvest.
One farm did extraordinary well, one pretty bad and the rest were marginal, Bryant said. Next year, about 2,500 acres will be planted.
“It is too early to tell how successful it’s going to be,” Bryant said. “We are gathering data now. Even if we don’t have a good crop, we can learn from that.”
Like all public education institutions, Redlands has been hit with state cuts. It is using some outside grants to provide the classes. The college will get some revenue once the crop goes to market.
“But not a big amount,” Bryant said. “Our budgets have been cut and strategic decisions have been made on spending. We don’t see this as major revenue. We are not planting this ourselves.”
While universities are dipping their toes into hemp research, it’s still possible cannabis could be Oklahoma’s next cash crop. Time will tell.
And, if the plant ever becomes a legally traded commodity, I expect the “Sunup TV” crew to add a cannabis report.
That would be a ratings bonanza.