Republican lawmakers want to help Wisconsin's once-dominant hemp industry make a comeback, giving farmers the chance to add a versatile and hardy plant to their fields.
Rep. Jesse Kremer and Sen. Patrick Testin are circulating a bill to legalize production of industrial hemp, which has many uses.
Wisconsin was once a leading producer of hemp. At its peak during World War II, the state produced three quarters of the hemp grown in the country before demand plummeted and China took control of the market. But states across the country are rejoining the race and Wisconsin lawmakers want in.
Freshman Sen. Patrick Testin said he initially had some concerns because many people don't differentiate between marijuana and hemp. Both are forms of cannabis, but hemp won't get a person high because it doesn't have enough THC, marijuana's active ingredient.
"It's an opportunity to bring an industry back to the state of Wisconsin," he said.
Hemp has a growing number of uses. Hemp fiber strengthens fabric and insulation while its oil and seeds are used in cosmetics and cereal. The plant is also showing up in high capacity batteries and car door panels.
"It has come a long way from its original heyday, so to speak," said Kremer's spokesman, Nik Rettinger.
The bill, which has bipartisan support, would require anyone who wants to grow hemp to be licensed by the state through a program overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. People who have drug convictions wouldn't be eligible for licenses. It also includes a provision to ensure a licensed producer's plants don't contain more than 1 percent THC.
University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and horticulturist Irwin Goldman says hemp crops would be a great addition for the state's farmers because it would add variety and is a sturdy, low-maintenance plant well-suited to Wisconsin's climate.
The federal government in 2014 passed the Farm Bill, which gave states the right to run hemp research programs. At least thirty states — including neighboring Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois — have passed legislation allowing cultivation of hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some states, including Oregon, struggled to launch hemp production the way lawmakers envisioned because they were initially short on seeds. The Wisconsin proposal would let producers use seeds certified in Wisconsin or elsewhere, language Rettinger said was included to avoid hurdles like those in other states.