Gov. Bruce Rauner on Sunday signed into law a bill that allows farmers to grow cannabis for non-drug uses, making Illinois the latest state to legalize a crop that experts say is growing in demand.
The new law permits the cultivation of industrial hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant that is used to make paper, fabrics, biodegradable plastics, construction materials and a variety of foods, including granola. The bill was introduced in January by state Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Chicago Heights.
Despite the plant’s widespread use, federal law prohibits the growing of hemp, which the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies as a Schedule 1 drug, or one with a high potential for abuse.
To get around the federal ban, at least 16 other states have legalized industrial hemp production for commercial purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Legalizing the farming of industrial hemp just makes good sense,” Rauner said in a statement after signing the bill, noting that a number of other states are considering allowing cultivation of the crop for commercial, research or pilot programs. "Our farmers should have this option as well."
The law establishes a licensure program through the state’s Department of Agriculture, which will include testing for levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive chemical that gives marijuana users a “high.” Hemp advocates have long pushed back against the FDA’s classification of the plant because it contains very small amounts of THC.
Although federal law restricts the cultivation of hemp for commercial use, the U.S. imports an estimated $300 million in hemp products and materials each year, according to the National Hemp Association. The market for hemp is projected to grow over the next few years, breaking $2 billion by 2020, with high demand for hemp from farmers, brewers, processors and even clothing designers.
Hemp is also popular among environmental advocates for its potential use in remediating contaminated soils and its ability to compete with weeds that are resistant to highly toxic herbicides.
“We are excited that Gov. Rauner is signing into law a bill that will bring a new sustainable agriculture industry and millions of dollars in investment and economic growth to Illinois,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, in a statement. “Industrial hemp will bring new opportunities to Illinois farmers.”
The new law will help farmers diversify their farms by growing a versatile crop, said Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. in a statement.