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Former Flyers enforcer, cannabis advocates prepare for the Pa. hemp industry to rocket after Trump’s approval of Farm Bill

Industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive sister of the marijuana plant, is set to take off next year as a cash crop.

Pa. Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding examines hemp plants with William “Bill” Evans, chief of staff for Pa. Senator Judy Schwank, at the Rodale Institute outside Kutztown, Berks County, in July 2017.
Pa. Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding examines hemp plants with William “Bill” Evans, chief of staff for Pa. Senator Judy Schwank, at the Rodale Institute outside Kutztown, Berks County, in July 2017.Read morePa. Dept. of Agriculture

Jon Cohn grew 62 acres of industrial hemp this year in Chester County.

About 10 percent of the experimental crop in West Grove was lost to mold. That’s because it rained constantly during the harvest. But for Cohn, the CEO of Agri-Kind Hemp LLC, the small pilot program was an unqualified success.

His company put the flower in nitrogen storage for processing, Cohn said. And the cannabinoids his company will extract will go to infuse skin and body creams to treat pain. Product should be on the shelves in the Philadelphia region by mid-January. He’s anticipating a national rollout in February.

Industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive sister of the marijuana plant, is set to take off next year as a cash crop.

And Cohn — who also will cultivate state-legal medical marijuana next year in a Chester City warehouse under the banner of Agronomed Pharmaceuticals — is one of a handful of pioneers well-positioned to grow the hemp industry in Pennsylvania. That effort starts now.

On Friday, President Trump signed the Farm Bill, which included a much-anticipated provision that legalizes U.S.-grown hemp for the first time in 80 years.

The law allows hemp farmers to use the banking system, obtain loans and federal subsidies, buy crop insurance, and ship the crop over state lines. The law also puts CBD, the very fashionable nutritional supplement used in supplements, ice cream, and infused drinks — and sometimes questionably touted as a wonder drug — under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration.

“CBD will explode,” said Philadelphia lawyer Josh Horn, cochair of the Cannabis Practice Group at Fox Rothschild.

“The critical part of the bill removed CBD and industrial hemp from the Controlled Substance Act, so now there will be no restrictions on CBD products," Horn said. "I think you’ll see CBD-infused drinks, capsules, and powders — whatever product you can imagine adding CBD to — will be sold. We’ve had several clients already contact us about drink products.”

Though the Farm Bill loosens up hemp commerce, the state and U.S. Department of Agriculture will tightly regulate all hemp farming.

“It’s not going to be a hemp free-for-all,” counsels Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “Not just anyone can plant hemp in their backyard gardens.”

States' agriculture departments will still issue licenses to farmers, who must provide the GIS coordinates for their plantings. The states are responsible for testing the harvests to be certain that the crops are what the farmers say they are. After all, high-inducing cannabis — that is, marijuana — looks identical to hemp to the untrained eye.

Pennsylvania’s hemp pilot program, which just finished its second year, has generated “tremendous research” on genetics and soil quality, Powers said. ""We have a jump on most other states."

Proponents are banking on the plant’s many uses. Some Pennsylvanians have sophisticated plans to use hemp for construction, culinary oils, bedding, and feed for animals, dietary supplements, pharmaceuticals, and, believe it or don’t, interior car panels for BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

“The variety of hemp products at the Pennsylvania Farm Show last year was dizzying,” Powers said.

Riley Cote, a former enforcer for the Flyers for eight seasons, is a longtime believer in the power of hemp and an organizer of the annual HempCares Fest at Penn’s Landing. Cote has been working with Geoff Whaling, CEO of the National Hemp Association, and Erica McBride Stark, executive director.

Cote said the team harvested a total of 150 acres of hemp this year and has plans to build the region’s first decortication facilities to process the fibrous plant. His company, AgriNext USA, has sites scouted out near Scranton and plans a hemp industrial park in upstate New York.

“The CBD play is the low-hanging fruit,” said Cote, who is positioning his brand BodyCheck Wellness as a cannabidiol health line. His company should have CBD — sourced initially from Colorado — in topical creams, balms, and capsules available for purchase by the beginning of the new year.

Cote also wants to combine CBD products with mushroom extracts. "Mushrooms are a superfood, good for immunity, and they have neuroprotection qualities. We’re positioning ourselves for when [the hallucinogenic fungi] psilocybin becomes legal. There’s a lot of good that can come from this.”

But Cote and Whaling are most charged about using the plant fiber for Hempcrete, a light building material that can be used for housing.

Whaling, the industry’s self-styled “Hemperor,” said Hempcrete already has shown its versatility in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“There have been homes built in British Columbia and the mayor of Asheville, N.C., had his house built out of hemp. There’s also British department stores, Marks & Spencer, that have built stores with hemp panels,” Whaling said. “You chop up the woody core, mix it up with lime and water, and put it in a form. It’s resistant to insects and mold. It’s natural and provides an extraordinary insulation factor when it’s 12 inches thick.”

There’s some concern that the upcoming green rush could cause a glut of hemp.

“There’s a risk. And keeping the supply chain in balance will be an important part of the equation,” said McBride-Stark. “That’s why we tell people not to just plant and pray you’ll get somebody to buy your crop. We’re telling farmers, ‘Don’t plant more than you can afford to lose.’

“The markets are there, the interest is there. But it’s important to match the farmers with suppliers, make sure the suppliers are legitimate and trustworthy, and keep supply and demand in check.”