Jefferson and Lehigh want to be at forefront of hemp, pot's strait-laced sibling

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Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, holds hemp seeds before planting on Lehigh University property in Upper Saucon Township in June.

If you believe the enthusiasts, industrial hemp could be the comeback story of our time — one worth potentially millions of dollars to groups ranging from Jefferson and Lehigh Universities to Pennsylvania’s farmers — if only given a chance.

Potential uses abound for the plant, a primary cash crop as clothing, oil and rope from the time of Pennsylvania’s founding in 1681 to the mid-19th century but a casualty of the war on the cannabis plant. Just a sampling of the new uses: Beauty products. Car parts. Building materials and housing insulation. Energy storage devices for electronics. Pest resistance and weed suppression.

And, seriously: It does not get you high.

Now, as legal and cultural barriers begin to fall, advocates are confronting perhaps the most difficult hurdle: developing from scratch the institutions and supply chain to sustain a stable market.

Thanks to an expansion of a state-run hemp pilot program, Lehigh University, Thomas Jefferson University and the nonprofit Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council are exploring a partnership aimed at becoming a locus for the nascent U.S. industry.

The research alliance — yet to be formalized, both universities emphasized — would seek a federal “center of excellence” designation, giving it first dibs on  U.S. Department of Agriculture funding. It also seeks relationships with international companies that own the harvesting equipment and processing technology to develop a viable market.

It could deliver an economic boon for the Lehigh Valley and Southeastern Pennsylvania. Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, led a coalition earlier this month to Europe, where it made a pitch to HempFlax, a Netherlands-based processing company with an eye on the U.S. market.

The company appreciated the holistic approach Lehigh and its partners are taking, said Cameron McCoy, Lehigh’s assistant vice president of economic engagement. Rather than merely selling equipment, HempFlax could gain from the alliance’s research as well as its relationship with existing manufacturers.

Whaling, of Berks County, said the company needs at least 3,000 acres of hemp to make an investment worthwhile. He hopes to get commitments from regional farmers by the Jan. 19 deadline for the state pilot program to show that the alliance is more than talk.

Holistic approach to hemp

Industrial hemp is the strait-laced sibling of marijuana. Both come from the same fibrous cannabis plant, but hemp has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive substance that gets you high.

The market has grown despite legal constraints. Imports of hemp, seeds, and fibers were nearly $78.2 million in 2015, up from $5.6 million in 2005, according to industry estimates. Those imports contributed to U.S. retail sales of hemp products of nearly $600 million in 2015.

To understand the possible future of industrial hemp, consider the petroleum refinery, says Ronald Kander, dean of Jefferson’s college of design, engineering & commerce.

Refineries don’t process crude oil for a single use, such as gasoline; that wouldn’t be economically viable. Instead, crude oil is converted into many products. And investors need to calculate the time and resources to make a given product and the value it will create.

Likewise, before farmers commit to hemp farming, they need to know they can make money. That requires buyers.

Researchers must decide which applications make the most sense to develop, Kander says.

There are four key questions: Does the hemp-derived product outperform what’s currently used? Is it less expensive to produce? Is it more environmentally sustainable? Will the consumer look past hemp’s relationship to marijuana? Kander thinks you probably need two affirmative answers to make development worthwhile.

Jefferson launched the Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp last year, thanks to a donation from an Australian banker, who also brought the industrial hemp company Ecofibre to Kentucky. Jefferson considers its expertise in medicine and applied research harmonious with Lehigh’s engineering strengths. Both have supply-chain management programs.

Kander envisions the alliance as a gatekeeper of the industrial hemp research ecosystem. It would pre-vet other regional universities with complementary research. As more firms explore hemp’s possibilities, they would turn to the Lehigh-Jefferson anchor for information or resources.

Legal progress

State and federal restrictions still must change before the industry can thrive.

Following the 2014 Farm Bill, the federal government has permitted growing hemp for research, and farmers can cultivate industrial hemp for commercial purposes in at least 20 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law enabling a hemp pilot program in 2015. The Wolf administration launched the program last year, but did not allow cultivation for commercial purposes, and limited research projects to five acres.

In 2018, commercial production remains prohibited, but the state now allows individuals to grow up to 100 acres of hemp and research cannabidiol (CBD), a compound that won’t get you high but has medicinal value. Perhaps most promising: Applicants who partner with educational institutions can grow as much as they want.

Legal barriers remain. The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) still classifies hemp under its definition of marijuana as a drug with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. This complicates interstate commerce and blocks access to financial services.

But a proposed bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, cosponsored by three local members, would exempt hemp from CSA regulations. U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican from Chester County, said the bill is a common-sense measure supported across the aisle and hopes it will be adopted in the next Farm Bill, expected in 2018 or 2019.

Contact Andrew Wagaman at awagaman@mcall.com or on Twitter @andrewwagaman