Industrial hemp

The regulations are necessary because of the plant’s similarity to marijuana, according to Jeff Cox, who oversees medical marijuana as well as hemp production in the state. 

Editor’s note: This is an installment in ongoing coverage of the future of industrial hemp production in Illinois. We will be exploring the agronomic, legal and marketing aspects of the crop in subsequent issues.


The General Assembly passed a bill last year allowing the production of industrial hemp in the state. Now comes the fine print. And there is a lot of it.

Proposed rules cover minimum acreage, transportation limitations and even criminal background checks. Producers must provide records and also pay various fees to the state for permits.

The regulations are necessary because of the plant’s similarity to marijuana, according to Jeff Cox, who oversees medical marijuana as well as hemp production in the state. Botanically, both are cannabis sativa L., though hemp varieties have little or no THC, the buzz-inducing chemical in marijuana.

“It has to be regulated because it looks exactly like marijuana,” said Cox, chief of the Bureau of Medicinal Plants, a division of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “The average Joe or even a scientist would have a hard time telling the difference just by looking at marijuana versus industrial hemp. They both have five leaves and even smell the same.”

The state is overreaching, some say. Retired Calhoun County farmer Jeff Gain has been an advocate for legalizing hemp production for a quarter-century. Gain is a former CEO of the National Corn Growers Association and executive director of the American Soybean Association.

Gain is blunt in his assessment of the proposed rules.

“To regulate this industry is stupid,” he said. “The government has no business in our marketplace.”

Gain and other ag leaders formed the North American Industrial Hemp Council in 1995 to educate consumers, legislators and others about the value of the crop. The council — whose board included former CIA Director James Woolsey — folded a couple of months ago after a frustrating 24 years during which the federal government did not move to decriminalize hemp and allow its cultivation.

Gain likens hemp regulations to licensing corn growers because liquor can be made from that crop.

“The reason is because of money,” Gain said. “You have to fill out forms and show you are a not felon in order to grow or process hemp, and of course, pay a fee. Why not just let farmers grow hemp?”

Cox again points to the similarity between marijuana and hemp.

“Unfortunately, we have bad actors in this world. We wouldn’t know if everyone is growing hemp or a personal stash of marijuana,” he said. “If everything was legal, maybe it wouldn’t be regulated at all. That’s both federal government and state of Illinois.”

Industrial hemp has long been an important crop. Its fibers have been used to make rope and in in manufacturing, especially in the automobile industry. Gain pointed out that Henry Ford himself once made a

Model T out of hemp fiber. It also has agronomic benefits.

“Hemp provides a rotation crop for corn, soy and wheat and helps by building the soil, breaking insect and disease cycles, fighting insects and by conserving land with its extensive root system and composting,” Gain said. “All of this with less chemicals now used extensively to grow all other crops.”

As is the case with other laws passed in the General Assembly, the hemp act was followed by a period allowing public comments before a set of rules were drawn up. The final language is then sent to the Joint Committee of Administrative Rules, or JCAR.

Cox said several changes have been made in the proposed rules before they were sent to JCAR. As of deadline, he had not returned calls to discuss the latest version of the proposed rules.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.