JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Senate is looking at developing commercial production of hemp - the same plant which produces marijuana.
It's no joke. And it's not a vehicle to impose harsher penalties on illegal marijuana production. Instead, the bill sponsor says his proposal simply is an issue to develop a new market for agriculture.
"I have no interest in promoting any use of narcotics. We're exposing another idea for agriculture to look at," said Sen. Jerry Howard, D-Dexter and the bill's sponsor.
Howard said that he introduced the bill as a way to provide an alternate agricultural product for farmers in Missouri. The mature stalks of the hemp plant can be used to make rope, yarn, paper, thread, cloth, and other fiber products.
A similar proposal has been discussed in the Colorado legislature for the past 2 years.
Carl Hinds, the public information officer of the Rocky Mountain Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Agency has been following this type of legislation. Hinds said that the DEA is not making a "concerted and vigorous effort to oppose this type of legislation. Instead, the DEA is taking a position of educating all sides of the debate."
Hinds did mention, however, that there are community groups in Colorado who are opposing the legislation on the basis of it's social message. He also said that local law enforcement officials have expressed some concern over what it would mean to them.
Ed Moses, a Sergeant with the Missouri Highway Patrol expressed more than just some concern about what this type of legislation could mean in Missouri.
Moses said he fears that any legalization of hemp will increase the perception that marijuana is a safe drug. When this perception increases, he said, so will the use of the drug, especially among young people.
On the other hand, Moses said that he doesn't mean to criticize proponents of this bill.
"There are lots of good and intelligent people who care a great deal about the health of our nation and our young people and have also been mislead about issues concerning alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana," Moses said. "I have met some very good people who thought decriminalization of marijuana is in everyone's best interest. It's not."
Columbia attorney Dan Viets, chair of the National Board of Directors of NORMAL, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that he doesn't think that legal industrial hemp production necessarily would lead to legalization of marijuana for recreational uses.
"But we would still support the bill because it is useful for the public to be exposed to more honest information about marijuana."
Moses said that is the reason he opposes the bill.
"NORMAL has said that they intend to use hemp as a red herring to make marijuana more available. Their main objective is to confuse people and get marijuana more accepted."
Howard said he's not worried about opposition to the proposal in the legislature.
"I don't anticipate any opposition because there is no ulterior motive. Everything is above board and we've provided a well-regulated mechanism in producing a product in a competitive market."
Viets said that many international companies are already capitalizing on hemp as an industrial product. "Hemp products are going to have a major impact on our economy. The question is whether or not Missouri farmers will be able to benefit from it."