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June 08, 2017

Research underway to explore bringing industrial hemp back to Pa.

After 80 years, Pennsylvania is exploring the potential benefits of bringing one of its former cash crops back to the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture announced permits in March for 16 projects in the state to study hemp, which has been banned for more than 80 years because of its close relationship to marijuana.

With summer approaching, a number of projects in the pilot program have gotten underway, a handful of them taking place in the greater Lehigh Valley.

Lehigh University researchers and the Berks County-based Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council are working together on three different projects, and GenCanna Global Inc. a startup that also took part in Kentucky's pilot program, is also set to grow the cannabis plant on a farm in Maxatawny Township in Berks County.

The Rodale Institute, also in Maxatawny Township, announced Wednesday it began its own project to examine industrial hemp's potential uses as a cash crop for weed control and soil health.

"This is an exciting venture," Jeff Moyer, executive director of Rodale Institute, said in a statement. "This could give us an opportunity to expand farmers' crop rotation, while helping farmers combat weed pressure, improve soil health, and sequester carbon."

Researchers imported hemp from six seeds sources in Canada, Bulgaria and Italy, and they tried, unsuccessfully, to import seeds from the United Kingdom and Australia, according to a Reading Eagle report.

While industrial hemp comes from the cannabis plant, it has trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive chemical compound that provides the "high" feeling to marijuana users.

The plant was a major cash crop in Pennsylvania for the better part of 250 years before production stopped with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. Along with marijuana, it was classified in the United States as a Schedule I drug in the 1970s.

According to the Pennsylvania Hemp Industrial Council, hemp can be used to make a variety of products that include clothing, medicine and food.

The organization is set to hold June 10 event in Bethlehem with panel discussions on current projects, lunch with hemp foods, a hemp paper-making workshop and other festivities to celebrate the start of the pilot program.

The projects start as activists continue to push for marijuana legalization and certain states and municipalities continue to loosen up on its use for medicine and, in some cases, recreation.

In Philly, Mayor Jim Kenney has been vocal on the issue of late. Initially leading the marijuana decriminalization push as a city councilman, Kenney supports legalizing the drug, and he touted advantages Philadelphia would have if state liquor stores could sell it when he spoke on WHYY's "Radio Times" last month.