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Seed 2 System, True Full Spectrum vapor distilled hemp extract. Photo provided by Shane Mutter

Louisiana has started handing out its first licenses to farmers allowing them to grow hemp, as the state agriculture agency finished crafting regulations for the industry here following the Legislature legalizing the growth of the crop last year.

“Our industrial hemp program administrators worked hard to ensure the regulatory framework was in place as soon as feasibly possible and in time for the 2020 planting season,” said Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, a Republican.

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Strain’s office said the first license to grow hemp was awarded to Nanette Noland, the president of the Powell Group, an investment firm that owns several agricultural businesses.

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Noland said her family business is invested heavily in pine trees, which have turned into a money loser in recent years. 

"So we have been looking to do something else with this acreage," she said. "After some investigation we decided hemp is the way to go."

The company plans to plant about 500 unobstructed acres of hemp in southwest Louisiana, as well as another 500 acres next to pine seedlings. Still, she fears the industry is still in a "wild west" phase, which is why she said the company is starting small. The firm also has plans for laboratories that will test soil and hemp leaves for other farmers to make sure they're in line with regulations. 

The prospect of hemp as a new crop has excited farmers here, especially after many suffered through a years-long trade war-induced downturn for some crops, as well as rough weather. Louisiana’s legalization of hemp, in line with a farm bill passed through Congress in 2018, has coincided with the explosion of popularity of Cannabidiol, or CBD, the non-psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant that is often extracted from hemp.

Meanwhile, new records from the state Alcohol and Tobacco Control board show nearly 1,500 businesses have received the paperwork required to sell products containing CBD, which is sold in a wide range of products including lotions, chapsticks and tinctures.

Those businesses span the state and range from gas stations to chiropractic clinics to pharmacies to CBD shops that have opened up in recent years.

The growing market for CBD has driven much of the demand for hemp, though the crop can be turned into a wide range of industrial products as well, including rope or textiles.

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The rules for hemp are strict, and include the threat of the government destroying a farmer’s crop--worth potentially tens of thousands of dollars--if the amount of THC is higher than the 0.3% threshold allowed by the feds. THC is the ingredient in cannabis that gets users high. In hemp, the amount of THC is small enough that the products created from the crop don’t elicit a high, unlike in marijuana.

House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, passed the bill last year that laid out many of the rules for farmers to grow hemp. Strain’s office then crafted a list of regulations that required approval from the federal government.

Strain’s office requires anyone growing, handling, transporting or processing hemp or hemp seed to get a license from the agriculture department. The agency hands out four different types of licenses, for growing, processing, producing seeds and transporting the crop.

Southern University, one of two entities licensed to grow marijuana under a separate medical program authorized by lawmakers, has also gotten into the CBD game. The school's private vendor for marijuana has started selling products with CBD extracted from hemp grown outside of Louisiana. The school has not yet produced any marijuana, years after lawmakers legalized the drug for medical use. 

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Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com