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June 8, 2014

Industrial hemp gets a champion in seed commissioner

Robert Waltz dances fine line between safety, production

INDIANAPOLIS — It may take Robert Waltz some time to get used to his new role as Indiana’s “hemp czar.”

As the state’s seed commissioner, Waltz may soon oversee the planting of Indiana’s first legal crop of cannabis in decades.

“It’s not a title I would take up on my own,” said the 60-year-old Waltz. “But I’ve been called worse.”

In April, Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation to allow Indiana farmers to grow industrial hemp. He tasked Waltz — appointed in 2009 as both the state chemist and seed commissioner — with clearing the way for that to happen. It’s no easy task.

Hemp lacks the psychoactive punch of marijuana but both are derived from the cannabis sativa plant. Hemp was once an abundant crop in Indiana — production peaked during the war effort in 1943 — but it’s been illegal to grow since 1970. That’s when the Controlled Substances Act lumped industrial hemp with marijuana and outlawed production of both, despite their chemical differences.

The farm bill passed by Congress earlier this year re-opened the door for industrial hemp production as a cash crop. It allows states and universities to grow hemp for agricultural research if they can get a waiver from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Some see growing hemp as a first step toward wider production of a plant that other countries already use for a range of household purposes — including paper, cosmetics and textiles.

Waltz, who’s based at Purdue University, has sought the DEA’s permission, but it may be months before the state gets approval.

Until then, he and a team of researchers are working on myriad hemp-related issues — from licensing procedures for farmers to security rules that will keep potheads from passing off marijuana as the lookalike hemp.

“One of the questions we have to answer is, ‘How stringent do the regulations need to be?’” Waltz said. “We want to encourage its production while recognizing the social concerns that come with it.”

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