Tennessee may not be the most progressive state on many issues, but the Volunteer State is leading the way on at least one issue — legalized hemp farming.
Last week, Tennessee joined 15 other states in legalizing the growing and harvesting of hemp. The state law that was signed in May went into effect on July 1st.
In the bill, the state specifies the newly legal plants as those that are "grown from seed certified by a certifying agency" and do not have a "THC concentration more than 0.3 percent on a dry mass basis."
The versatile hemp plant is used in manufacturing everything from automobile components to building materials for homes, as well as in clothing, paper, and fuel — either biodiesel or bioethanol from different parts of the plant.
When consumed, hemp seeds, often sold in grocery stores as "hemp hearts," provide a complete protein and a high dose of omega-3 fatty acids.
While hemp and marijuana stem from the same species of plant, marijuana varieties — those with high THC concentrations — come from the flowers and leaves of the plant, while hemp is made from the fiber and seeds of a low-THC plant. An analogy that is frequently used to separate the two cannabis varieties describes the differences between a wolf and a Chihuahua — both members of the Canis lupus species but different breeds.
State Senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) voted in favor of the bill and said the bottom line was creating new jobs for Tennesseans.
"It's a national movement in some of the agricultural states trying to find new products," Kyle said. "We lost a lot of jobs when the textile industries went overseas. But hemp apparently has properties where you can use it in manufacturing — it's a fiber, just like cotton, and consequently, since it is a fiber like cotton and it can be used like cotton, that may present some economic opportunities in parts of the country that could grow the product."
The bipartisan effort went unopposed in the state Senate, the language careful to distinguish between marijuana and hemp. Kyle said the hemp issue and the legalization of recreational or medical marijuana are two separate issues and shouldn't be lumped together.
"If it creates economic opportunities — job opportunities — for people, that's a good thing," Kyle said. "Despite the fact that we're talking about hemp, if you look past that, and you don't connect this issue to the medical marijuana issue, you have a chance to pass something in Tennessee. I think it was viewed as an economic issue and not as anything else. The proponents of the bill went out of their way to make sure that was clear and that's why it passed 28 to nothing in Tennessee."