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After Congressional Green Light, Scientists Begin Hemp Studies


Let's talk about a cousin of marijuana, hemp. It's grown throughout the world for its oil and fiber, which show up in everything from beauty products to rope. And scientists are studying how hemp might be used in the electronic, medical and manufacturing industries. But the fact that the plant's been illegal in the U.S. for decades makes it more difficult to do research on it, as Luke Runyon from member station KUNC reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Nolan Kane walks through tall rows of plants at the University of Colorado Boulder.

NOLAN KANE: So we're at one of the greenhouses on campus.

RUNYON: Kane is an evolutionary biologist. And right now, he has permission to grow industrial hemp here. It's been tough to secure seed, so it's not in the ground quite yet.

KANE: I am told that it is not the first cannabis that has been grown on campus, however, just the first legal cannabis. (Laughter).

RUNYON: Humans have been growing hemp for centuries. And Kane says the plant holds tremendous potential.

KANE: It's one of those things that when you talk to people, it's hard to believe all the different uses because it really gets a little bit ridiculous all the different things that people use it for.

RUNYON: But it's difficult to get a handle on all those uses because of an enormous knowledge gap. Kane says there are tons of unanswered questions about the plant's basic science. His current project is to create a genetic map of cannabis.

KANE: What formal research is there has been good. But there just isn't enough of it - right? - because there aren't that many people that have been able to get funding and permission to do this anywhere, really.

RUNYON: That permission is rare because even though hemp has little to no psychoactive properties, under federal law it's still in the same class of illegal drugs as heroin and LSD. The list of potential uses for hemp is long. But what might be the plant's most magical property, it can actually get members of Congress to work together. Here's Colorado Democratic Representative Jared Polis.

REPRESENTATIVE JARED POLIS: We were able to pass an amendment to the farm bill showing that there are a majority of Democrats and Republicans that felt that this is an important crop.

RUNYON: The farm bill that passed last year included an amendment giving a green light to researchers to study hemp. Nineteen states, including California, Illinois and Vermont, have pilot programs in the works. But it hasn't been a free-for-all for scientists.

PATRICK O'ROURKE: Higher education is a fairly regulated environment.

RUNYON: That's Patrick O'Rourke, the University of Colorado's lead attorney. It's his job to make sure cannabis research doesn't put the school's federal funding at risk.

O'ROURKE: The message that we've tried to say is, we support your ability to do any type of research that you want to do, as long as you're going through the right steps to have it approved.

RUNYON: While public universities figure out their place in cannabis research, private companies are attempting to pick up the slack.

JOHN MCKAY: So this is the greenhouse warehouse.

RUNYON: John McKay is a plant geneticist at Colorado State University. Instead of waiting for all the federal approvals, he started his own business, working out of a small greenhouse he rents off campus. He says the conflicts in federal and state law just make everything move so slowly.

MCKAY: Nothing is completely spelled out in law. And then what little has been spelled out, then agencies and universities are trying to use to make plans. And by the time we make them, then maybe the laws change again.

RUNYON: While those laws keep changing, McKay says scientists, both public and private, will be doing whatever work they can to fill the research gap in hemp. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Fort Collins, Colorado.

GREENE: And Luke's story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.