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In Johnston, hemp’s future is still hazy

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SMITHFIELD — Both agricultural and pharmaceutical experts agree it’s too soon to predict the future of commercial hemp production in Johnston County.

Frank Lee of Smithfield has applied for a special-use permit to operate a hemp greenhouse and warehouse at the intersection of South Brightleaf Boulevard and Holding Street.

Lee declined comment on his planned operation until after the town council’s decision.

According to Lee’s application, the facility will be a high-tech indoor cultivation facility for growing, curing and handling hemp for industrial and medical purposes.

The cultivation area, 46,903 square feet, will hold about 250-400 hemp plants per cultivation room, a conditioned space with special artificial lighting to produce an optimal growing environment.

Initially, the growing area will be around 10,080 square feet with an associated 5,670 square-foot curing area, leaving the remainder of the space for warehousing.

According to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, more than 100 growers across the state are participating in the first year of a pilot research program overseen by the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission.

Lee has a three-year state license to produce hemp.

COMMERCIAL CROP

Tim Britton, a field agent for the Johnston County Cooperative Extension, said Lee’s production site would the be largest in Johnston County, although he said there are already a few small-scale facilities in the county.

“There is interest, but understandably a lot of caution,” said Britton “As with all crops, having a place to sell and process product in proximity to Johnston County is important and we don’t have all the pieces in place.”

Britton said Johnston County is a suitable area for hemp production.

“That’s due to the fact that it can be planted, plowed, dried and handled using tobacco equipment,” said Britton. “It is a labor-intensive crop and we already have labor in the area for sweet potatoes and tobacco.”

Hemp planting usually takes place from May through early July.

“We are just starting to get a handle on varieties and planting dates in our area. Harvest is still an unknown for us,” said Britton. “We have some varieties that may be ready mid-August and some through October.”

Britton said it’s not known how adverse weather might affect hemp production.

“The plant does not need to stress at all and as of now, it does not appear to have an issue, once rooted with heat,” said Britton. “Plants that are planted in the extreme heat tend not to do well because they do not produce fibrous roots from the stem like tomatoes or tobacco.”

Britton said that for farmers, getting into hemp production is still a risky venture.

“This is a risky investment for growers. Transplants are expensive and feminized seed is also expensive for those producing transplants. This year, there were some growers who could not get all the plants needed to set or reset,” said Britton. “As far as I know, there is currently no crop insurance, so when you spend $14,000 to $16,000 an acre for irrigation, fertilizer, labor and plants, it is on you if plants die.”

Britton said if the crop contains more than 0.3% of the compound THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, then it’s considered marijuana and must be destroyed.

MEDICAL AND PHARMACEUTICAL USES

Chris Breivogel is vice chairman and associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the Campbell University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. His field of expertise is cannabinoid research.

Breivogel said that decades ago the federal government approved THC, the psychoactive ingredient from marijuana for cancer patients to relieve the side effects of chemotherapy. Another chemical compound, cannabidiol or CBD, is surging in popularity. It can be extracted from hemp and is egal to possess and use on a very limited basis.

CBD is not psychoactive, meaning users don’t experience the “high” associated with marijuana. It’s taken for therapeutic benefits, but peer-reviewed studies have yet to verify the many claims about its effectiveness in treating everything from chronic pain to depression.

“What’s been proven is that cannabidiol has been active in treating two childhood seizure disorders,” said Brievogel. “It’s been also used to treat anxiety and insomnia. But like any dietary supplement available at the drugstore, it’s not FDA-approved.”

CBD oil is taken orally, said Brievogel. He said there are several ongoing trials to determine the drug’s effectiveness and possible side effects but only one to date has been completed.

“The only one that’s completed tested for seizure disorders,” said Breivogel. “It didn’t have any deadly side effects. Some study participants experienced sleepiness, fatigue and liver damage. But it’s safe, relatively safe, compared to other drugs.”

Breivogal said the Food and Drug Administration has approved clinical trials, but it’s still too early to gauge CBD’s long-term safety and efficacy.

“There are lots of shops in Wilmington and Raleigh that sell CBD,” said Breivogel. “But like any dietary supplements or vitamins, CBD is not regulated and, in some cases, has contained traces of THC.”

Breivogel declined to speculate on the future of pharmaceutical uses of hemp-produced CBD or whether it will ever be publicly accepted as a mainstream drug.

He became interested in the study of the drug’s impact on the brain as a graduate student at Wake Forest University.

“At that time, studies were really taking off,” said Breivogel. “Studies of human receptors and brain interaction were popular and it was an exciting time to get into it. My mentor at graduate school said I should explore research into how the brain interacts with these substances.”

Breivogel is currently working on a rodent model to study the acute and chronic effects of THC compared to some of the more commonly-used synthetics.

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