Gov. Kelly calls for legal medical marijuana as Kansas begins second year of hemp cultivation

PITTSBURG — Gov. Laura Kelly said last week that one issue she expects to be addressed this year is medical marijuana legalization, and she would “probably” approve recreational marijuana legalization if the Legislature sent her a bill, although it’s not something she is “going to advocate for.”

Kansas is now surrounded on all sides by states that have either to some degree decriminalized or fully legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.

In Missouri, where medical marijuana has been legalized, industrial hemp cultivation is also beginning this year. Hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the same plant species, Cannabis sativa, but grown differently with an emphasis on producing higher or lower amounts of components such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD), or other plant-based materials such as fiber, which can be used for a wide range of purposes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines hemp as Cannabis sativa containing 0.3 percent THC or less.

In 2018, then-Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer signed a bill allowing the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) to oversee an industrial hemp cultivation research program. Last year was the first year of the program, giving KDA-approved farmers a chance to see if hemp is a crop they have a long-term interest in growing.

“I’m not interested in it from a perspective of medical marijuana or the CBD oil or anything like that,” said Brice Elnicki, general manager of Producers Cooperative Association in Girard, in an interview following his appointment to the KDA’s Marketing Advisory Board in September. “But the hemp, the textile part of it, the processing, the agronomics behind it definitely have piqued my interest. I’ve had the word ‘hemp’ with a question mark behind it circled on my dry-erase board for probably the last year.”

For a majority of farmers participating in the state’s hemp cultivation research program, however, CBD seems to be a selling point for the crop.

At an event hosted last month in Newton by the company Sunnyland Kansas, Braden Hoch, KDA industrial hemp supervisor, said that in 2019 the KDA received nearly 400 applications to participate in its hemp cultivation program. Of those, more than half were licensed as growers.

“Roughly 90 percent of all industrial hemp was grown for floral materials, cannabidiol, and 99 percent of it was grown outdoors, so there was very minimal licensed acreage that was grown in controlled environments,” such as greenhouses or indoor growing facilities, Hoch said.

Sunnyland Kansas, which started its operations about three years ago in Oregon — where not only hemp farming but medical and recreational marijuana are legal — is among those cultivators who are focused on CBD and cannabigerol (CBG) production.

“While we are happy to help farmers in the fiber and grain side of hemp, we focus primarily on feminized cannabinoid-rich cultivation and processing with the goal of providing maximum farmer return and delivering the highest quality cannabinoids to the market,” according to the company’s website.

There are other entrepreneurs, however, looking to get into the hemp business to profit from the plant’s industrial uses — to make paper, clothing, or biofuels, for example — either as farmers or providing other services related to the crop.

In an interview while visiting Pittsburg in August, Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland discussed a company in Russell that is aiming to make money catering to the equipment needs of the budding industry.

“Industrial hemp is a new crop, this is the first year it’s been in Kansas, and it is typically harvested with chainsaws because it’s such a strong plant, you can’t just go out and cut it with regular machinery,” Toland said. “So this company, Mechanized Concepts Kansas, makes commercial, you know, large-scale harvesting equipment to get the hemp out of the field. And so this is a new manufacturing opportunity in a town of 5,000 in the middle of the state, and it’s a great opportunity not only for that town but for our state as a whole.”

Despite potential economic benefits of industrial hemp farming, legalization of marijuana in Kansas — even in a highly regulated medical context “as a pharmaceutical," as Gov. Kelly has proposed — has its opponents.

“Many of the state's law enforcement agencies and organizations say that even medical marijuana would increase car accidents and violent crime,” the Associated Press reported last year. “They say marijuana is inherently tied to violence, especially from Mexican cartels.”

Cartel violence being “inherently” tied to marijuana — even legal marijuana — is a controversial claim. Marijuana legalization aside, however, support for industrial hemp in Kansas appears to have widespread support on both sides of the aisle. While visiting southeast Kansas in September, Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS 1st District), who is running to represent the state in the U.S. Senate, said he is supportive of hemp cultivation.

“I’m 100 percent behind industrial hemp,” Marshall said. “You would pass out from smoke inhalation before you would get high from hemp. So I’m OK with it. I think it’s an alternative out there. It doesn’t take much water. There are some opportunities out there for it, so I’m OK with hemp.”

While there seems to be significant interest in hemp cultivation, however, it does not appear that the crop will prove to be a cure-all for problems faced by Kansas farmers. At last month’s event in Newton, Hoch said that hurdles for hemp farmers to overcome in 2019 included excessive precipitation, getting started late in the season because of licensing requirements, and pest and disease problems.

“Additionally as we approached the late harvest season our industrial hemp growers and producers were having difficulties with establishing outlets for their harvest,” Hoch said.

Christian Coleman, president of Sunnyland Kansas, also discussed the challenges of growing hemp at the Newton event.

“Real world situation, your first year especially, you could put $8- to $12,000 into your every acre,” Coleman said. “In some cases they spent more than $15,000 per acre. That’s seed, that’s equipment, that’s labor, that’s expensive. So you need to understand that getting involved in the hemp industry is not just this huge money maker with little effort. It costs a lot to get involved, to get your foot in the door, your seed expense, your equipment, it’s high.”

Despite the challenges of getting started growing a new crop, however, and concerns some may have about what it could mean for the future of marijuana legalization in Kansas, interest in the potential opportunities provided by hemp cultivation appears to remain widespread in the state a year after the KDA’s research program began.

“I’m intrigued and interested in the hemp industry from the perspective of a Kansas farmer that’s looking for a new opportunity and a new cash crop,” said Elnicki. “What that might lead to in the future, I don’t know, and you know, I’ve got some questions about it too.”