Hemp, one of the most versatile plants on Earth, seems to be the answer to all the world’s woes, from replacing plastic, fiberglass and wood, to being a cure-all for a multitude of ailments — including insomnia, inflammation and seizures.

New hemp products, made from each part of the plant — seeds, roots, stalk and leaves — crop up daily on the national market. Many wonder if this leafy-green plant could be the miracle-crop eastern North Carolina farmers have been searching for, reviving an industry that has struggled for decades.

Farmers are in a cash crop drought as they have watched their remaining tobacco contacts dry up to a world market. Sage, another crop that promised to fill the void left by tobacco’s demise, has been usurped by a synthetic scent product due to hit the market in 2021.

Fourth-generation Bertie County farmer Kirk Copeland said at one time, he had pinned his hopes on sage because of the dwindling tobacco market. He and his brother, Sid, own Featherstone Farms.

“Due to the world’s economy, tobacco is shrinking in North Carolina. We used to grow 800 million pounds in the state. Then it was curtailed to 450 million. And in recent years it has dropped to 250 million,” said Copeland.

With America’s demand for hemp increasing — the United States is the No. 1 importer of hemp in the world — raising the crop seems to be an obvious solution.

Restricted potential

Cowen Inc., a New York investment banking firm that has a division dedicated to cannabis, recently projected the U.S. market for consumer products derived from hemp — from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals — could surpass $16 billion by 2025. That is not including the demand for hemp fiber.

But, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that restricts hemp farming. More than 30 nations grow industrial hemp as an agricultural commodity for sale on the world market, the department reports, but in the U.S. production is strictly controlled.

Hemp production has only been allowed in North Carolina since the federal 2014 Farm Bill permitted research institutions and state agriculture departments to grow it under pilot programs. The state created a program in 2017 and gave farmers the chance to register for a license from the NCDA.

Today, hemp production is still under the rules of the pilot program and will continue to be at least until October. After that, farmers may have to register for licenses with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which entails different rules, complicating an already confusing process.

Last year, state legislators tried to include a broader regulatory structure for expanding industrial hemp production in the state 2019 Farm Bill, replacing the pilot program. The bill also would have banned smokable hemp — which lacks the concentration of a compound called THC that gives marijuana its high but reportedly delivers the benefits of CDB faster.

Paul Adams, manager of the state’s Industrial Hemp Program with NCDA said all hemp provisions were removed from the bill before it was finally passed in June.

Law enforcement officials hoped smokable hemp would be banned because they say the look and smell make it impossible to differentiate it from illegal marijuana in police actions.

Farmers who produce it say consumer demand for it is great. Outlawing it would remove a profitable commodity.

With no new hemp guidelines, the 2019 Farm Bill left farmers with more questions than answers for what might come next for smokable hemp and crops grown for CDB oil extraction and other uses.

Maze of uncertainty

During the May meeting of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission, Chief Daniel House told farmers, “Currently, the legal framework around hemp is not clear past Oct. 30, 2020.”

Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican and chief Senate bill negotiator, said hemp [production] will continue to follow rules under the production pilot project.

“Retaining the pilot makes sense since federal rules that would expand production have been changing,” Jackson said.

As hemp continues to be an emerging industry, it has become tangled up in politics and restrictions.

Copeland and his brother are in their fourth season experimenting in hemp. He warns it is not for the faint of heart.

“The problem is you have government guidelines, then you have the state’s pilot program,” he said.

Not knowing what will happen after October is unsettling. If hemp becomes regulated by the USDA, it could mean a whole different set of rules and regulations.

“Its all questions,” Copeland said.

Changing laws are only one of the challenges farmers face raising hemp.

In an industry that remains largely unregulated, producers must weed through unscrupulous suppliers of seeds and plants as well as greedy processors, who take advantage of farmers eager to find an alternative to ever-shrinking profit margins.

In addition, growing the capricious crop can be a huge financial risk.

This year (2020), was the first year farmers in the state have been able to buy insurance for their hemp.

What’s old is new

Hemp growing in America may seem groundbreaking, but the crop is rooted in the history of early American soil. In the 1700s, laws required farmers in several colonies to grow the fibrous plant for use in making rope, ship sails and clothing.

Hemp continued to be grown here until the early 1940s when it was last produced for the World War II war effort.

The “Marihuana” Tax Act of 1937 made it illegal to grow hemp when it was lumped it together with its nefarious cousin, marijuana. Because they are visually indistinguishable, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and later the Drug Enforcement Administration, labeled both in the same drug category as heroin and LSD.

Hemp and marijuana stem from the same genus (cannabis sativa), but marijuana has been modified to produce high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. The level of THC found in marijuana is usually 5 percent and higher.

Currently, hemp, in any form, is federally required to have less than 0.3 percent of THC.

The stigma of hemp being a drug persists to this day.

Martin County farmer William Manning said he had his reservations.

“I wouldn’t grow it for a long time,” he said. “But, I got to looking at it the good part of it — it helps people with seizures, among other things. It is a good product. I don’t know if the FDA is going to get in it and mess it up. If they classify it as a drug, then I don’t know what that will do.”

He said taking CBD oil (by dropper under his tongue) has replaced his need for Tylenol and Aleve for his aches and pains.

Copeland also had reservations.

“I wouldn’t even grown hemp until I researched it and realized this is a medical product,” he said. “I actually purchased several different products that were reputable for their oil to see if there was really a medicinal value.” He claims there most definitely was.

“I heard a story about a guy who couldn’t sleep at night because he had palsy. His medication would only carry him until about two or three in the morning when his shaking would wake him up. When he started taking CBD, he started getting a full night’s sleep. When you hear those kinds of stories, it adds to the credibility,” he said.

Currently, there is only one FDA-approved drug containing cannabidiol (CBD), Epidiolex, that’s approved for medical use to treat seizures caused by two forms of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Researchers at the NCDA agree hemp production in the state can be a viable option, but as the industry is just emerging, they urge a tremendous amount of caution.

Copeland agrees.

“We are on the very, very beginning of this,” he said. “We are the fledglings, I guess.”