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Florida lawmakers support these hemp bills

The bills allow licensed hemp growers to use any seeds deemed safe by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Feb. 4, 2020

TALLAHASSEE -- Two bills that aim to fix “glitches” in the state hemp program passed their first committee stops unanimously Tuesday.

The bills allow licensed hemp growers to use any seeds deemed safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, clarify that hemp products must be properly packaged and labeled and require that licensees who break rules while distributing or selling hemp extract complete corrective action plans.

The Senate version also includes a provision that restricts sales of inhaled products like CBD joints to people under 21.

The CBD compound, unlike its psychoactive sister THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), won’t get users high but has been anecdotally reported to have calming and anti-inflammatory effects. CBD is extracted from the hemp plant.

In 2019, the Legislature passed a law creating the state hemp program within the Department of Agriculture to regulate the cultivation of hemp in the state. Those seeking to grow hemp have to apply with the department for a license, the first of which are expected to be available in March.

The program provides that future growers only use hemp seeds and cultivars certified by a certifying agency or a university conducting a hemp pilot project, a provision that would be undone by the set of bills.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, in the Senate and Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, and Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, in the House.

In the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday morning, Montford said the bill is both cautious regarding the nascent industry but also supportive of farmers like those in the Panhandle who lost timber farms in Hurricane Michael.

“I’d rather be too cautious than open the door and regret it down the road,” he said. “Especially at the expense of farmers ... hemp could be the savior of the economy in North Florida. “

In the Senate, there was some hesitation over writing legislation while hemp is still “an unknown frontier.”

“I think we’re dipping our toe into something that will have repercussions for generations,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, who voted yes on the bill. “This concerns me. I pray that we move in such a way that we protect future generations.”

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, which heard the bill later in the day, also voted unanimously for the bill.

Drake said he hopes the bill gives consumers faith that the products they purchase, sell or consume are backed by Florida law.

“With new technology or a new industry, there are always things that need to be worked out,” he said. “As Floridians, we have begun that journey.”

Drake said by allowing farmers to use different types of hemp seeds aside from certified seeds, the bill also breaks down a barrier for Floridians to enter the market.

“We want to make sure those who have an interest in pursuing this, we would not stifle their entrepreneurial efforts,” said Drake, whose district encompasses a rural, agriculture-dependent part of the state. “I know I have a lot of constituents who would be good hemp growers.”

The House version of the bill, unlike the Senate version, requires that the Industrial Hemp Advisory Council, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis would serve as the sole advisory group on the topic.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried oversees her own Hemp Advisory Committee, which would become moot under the bill.

Taylor Biehl, of the Florida Hemp Association, said the bill addresses some concerns that have come up with the Department of Agriculture, like whether the agency has the authority to regulate inhalation products like CBD joints.

He added, however, that the 21 age requirement for smoking hemp and CBD is “ironic,” given the marketing of hemp products as an alternative to nicotine. He predicted hemp will eclipse tobacco in popularity in the next five years.

“[Hemp] is medicinal in nature and far less harmful to the lungs and the body,” he said.

Melissa Villar, of marijuana advocacy group NORML Tallahassee, said the restriction on inhalation products is “an overreach.”

“Federal government has limited 21-plus to nicotine products,” she noted .”We oppose any kind of limit on inhalation to 21 and up. But we don’t oppose the department’s oversight.”