Andy Peck wants to start growing hemp plants at his nursery in Dacula, but like many farmers across Georgia, he’s worried that government regulations will stifle the new industry before it starts.
Peck wouldn’t be allowed to sell hemp to anyone except processing companies, which don’t exist yet in Georgia. He couldn’t ship his product outside Georgia, but out-of-state producers could bring their hemp here. With such an uncertain market, Peck doesn’t know whether hemp would even be profitable.
Since Georgia lawmakers legalized hemp farming earlier this year, Peck and 71 other people have submitted public comments to the state Department of Agriculture, almost all of them expressing concerns about the state’s proposed regulations. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained their comments through a request under the Georgia Open Records Act.
“The way they proposed it isn’t going to work for Georgia farmers,” said Peck, who would like to grow hemp along with violas, ferns, perennials, annuals and other flowers in greenhouses on his 21 acres at Quail Hollow Nurseries. “We want to make sure Georgia is competitive with the rest of the South. The way the laws are written now, we won’t be.”
Hemp is a nonpsychoactive form of the cannabis plant that is primarily used to make CBD oil, a popular product marketed as a remedy for muscle pain, anxiety, insomnia and seizures. Unlike marijuana, which also comes from cannabis, hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, the compound that allows marijuana users to achieve a high.
While Georgians can buy CBD oil in nutrition stores and gas stations, the product is farmed, processed and shipped from out of state. Forty-one states already have hemp farming programs, and Georgia farmers want to get in on the action now that the General Assembly allowed it.
Now they’re having to wait for regulations to be approved — and hope that they’re not overly cumbersome.
Warren Hanchey of Whole Leaf Co., a business that grows hemp in Colorado and Oregon, said the hemp regulations require farmers to enter into written agreements with processors, but processing plants haven’t been built yet. He said farmers should be able to do business with any plant that offers the best price and service.
“They’re just trying to over-regulate everything,” said Hanchey, who lives in Johns Creek. “We’re trying to create all-new steps in Georgia to grow the hemp. I’m afraid it’s going to lead to a disaster for the farmers getting into this.”
The Georgia Department of Agriculture will review the public comments and decide whether proposed regulations should be changed, said Julie McPeake, a spokeswoman for the department. The state is waiting on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release federal hemp program rules before moving forward with Georgia’s regulations.
If approved, a hemp grower license would cost $50 per acre, up to a $5,000 maximum. Hemp processors would have to pay $25,000 upfront and $10,000 every year after.
Jonathan Caulkins, an expert on drug policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said Georgia’s hemp regulations might not be as onerous as they appear based on farmers’ public comments.
“You need to take everything that those in the industry say with a grain of salt because most often, the people who are being regulated don’t like the regulations,” Caulkins said.
Georgia regulators and lawmakers may have imposed seemingly strict regulations to ensure that hemp farming is tightly controlled, reducing the chance that farmers would instead cultivate marijuana, he said.
“It’ll be tough competition because Georgia isn’t the only place that has the right climate to grow the plant,” Caulkins said. “A lot of people are going to lose money on this.”
Potential hemp farmers said the costs and restrictions will make it difficult for them. For example, state inspectors can take hemp samples without notice, and if tests show they contain too much THC, entire crops must be destroyed. Many other states have similar rules for crop destruction.
“I could not be more disappointed,” said Everett Perry of Columbus, who calls himself a “possible new farmer” in his written comments to the state. "You are either out of touch with reality or just don’t want hemp processors in Georgia. Which is it?”
The limitation on farmers selling hemp to anyone but processors particularly hurts nurseries, said Peck and other growers. They want to grow hemp for a few weeks before turning young plants over to farmers for further cultivation.
“Please consider the small farms and farmers who would like to participate but cannot realistically afford the high permit fees for growing and especially processing,” wrote Samantha Martin of Barefoot Farm in Ringgold. “The stigma surrounding hemp as another marijuana plant has allowed lawmakers to pass too strict regulations on a crop that is harmless.”
Georgia’s hemp regulations are among the most restrictive in the country, said Jonathan Miller, the general counsel for U.S. Hemp Roundtable, an advocacy organization for the hemp industry.
“There’s still from some officials a sense of a little nervousness about hemp,” Miller said. “I don’t think it’s well-placed, but that’s the case because its relationship to marijuana freaks out a lot of people. That’s something we’ll continue to deal with.”
Besides hemp, Georgia lawmakers approved medical marijuana sales for registered patients in the state, but that program hasn’t moved forward yet. Gov. Brian Kemp and other top politicians haven’t appointed members of the commission that will create rules for dispensing the drug.
Written By: Mark Niesse