Hemp

(Lincoln) -- A bill to legalize hemp production in Nebraska has cleared a first hurdle.

On Monday, the Nebraska Unicameral advanced LB 657 passed the first round of debate on a 37-to-4 vote. The bill would allow the commercial production of hemp and creates the Nebraska Hemp Commission for the purpose of promoting the hemp industry and its products. State Senator Justin Wayne, who represents parts of north Omaha and other portions of Douglas County, introduced the legislation.

“Hemp can be used for fabrics, yarns, rope, paper, insulation materials, drywall, animal bedding, industrial oils, body care products and many more,” said Wayne.

State Senator Tom Brandt -- a farmer from Plymouth -- says he supports legalizing industrial hemp. After the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the list of controlled substances, Brandt says the race is on in agricultural states.

“Kansas has already legalized the growth and sales of industrial hemp," said Brandt. "Iowa and Missouri passed legislation to grow industrial hemp in 2018. Wyoming passed their legislation this year. In 2017 Montana had only 542 acres of hemp in production. Today, they have over 22,000 acres in production. We are lagging behind our neighboring states, who are our competitors in this emerging market."

Senator Steve Erdman of Bayard is among a group of senators who oppose legalizing hemp in Nebraska. He pointed to recent comments from South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who vetoed hemp production in her state.

“An overwhelming number of contacts she had received in favor of this bill come from the pro-marijuana people," said Erdman. “There is no question in my mind that normalizing hemp, like legalizing medical marijuana, is part a larger strategy to undermine enforcement of the drug laws and make legalized marijuana inevitable."

Senator John Lowe of Kearney says legalizing hemp could potentially create a nightmare for law enforcement, especially along Interstate 80 in his district.

“The drug dogs will not be able to tell the difference between hemp and marijuana as it’s being transported across our state," said Lowe. "They can’t tell the difference. If you’re taking a load of hemp across the state to a manufacturing place and a state patrolmen stops you and holds it for testing, it may take a week or a month for that to happen."

Wayne countered, saying federal law includes provisions for transportation requirements.

“When you transport, there is documentation you have to carry that is generated by the industry," said Wayne. "So you’re not going to be driving a semi with bales of hemp without having documentation of that product."

Hemp was briefly legalized during World War II and Nebraska was the leading producer of the crop in the country. The proposal now advances to a second round of debate and will need to clear a third hurdle before going to Governor Pete Ricketts. Ricketts has indicated his support for legalizing hemp in the state.