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Up in smoke: Kentucky burns hemp with too much THC

BRUCE SCHREINER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky agriculture officials say they burned a fraction of the hemp crop being grown in the state for commercial purposes because it contained a higher level of a psychoactive compound than is legally allowed.

About 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of hemp were burned Thursday, said Brent Burchett, director of plant marketing for the state agriculture department.

Hemp and marijuana are the same species, but hemp usually has a negligible amount of THC, the psychoactive compound that gives marijuana users a high. The hemp in question, part of last year's crop, was being burned because it contained a level of THC exceeding 0.3 percent, Burchett said. That's the limit set by Congress and followed by the state.

Grower Lyndsey Todd cultivated most of the burned hemp, which was to be turned into medicine. Todd said her product was not psychoactive and that the 0.3 percent THC limit is an "unrealistic number."

"You could smoke all 100 pounds and you would end up probably with a headache and nothing else," said Todd, who grew her hemp in greenhouses in Pulaski County in south-central Kentucky. "It's non-psychoactive."

Kentucky has been at the forefront nationally in efforts to return hemp to mainstream status, and the state's agriculture department has been one of the crop's leading proponents.

Hemp is prized for its oils, seeds and fiber.

For this year's hemp crop, state agricultural officials approved 209 applications from growers, allowing them to produce up to 12,800 acres (5,180 hectares) of hemp. Experimental projects began in Kentucky with a mere 33 acres (13 hectares) in 2014. Last year, 137 growers were approved to plant up to 4,500 acres (1,800 hectares).

Less than 1 percent of last year's hemp crop has had to be destroyed due to excessive THC levels, state officials said Thursday. The latest batch of hemp being burned was tested repeatedly and each time was found to exceed the THC limit, they said. Todd's hemp showed THC levels ranging from 1.2 percent to 0.4 percent THC — barely exceeding the legal limit.

The destruction is unfortunate but shows "we're doing what we're supposed to be doing," Burchett said. "We don't have that flexibility," he said. "We've got a program that's under a lot of scrutiny at the federal level. We have to be good stewards with law enforcement."

But Eric Steenstra, president of the advocacy group Vote Hemp, said the law needs to be changed to allow more flexibility for growers who are taking a chance on the plant.

Steenstra said THC levels can be affected by weather or other stresses on the crop that are out of a farmer's control. Instead of burning hemp with slightly elevated THC levels, officials could preserve it by blending it with hemp testing at lower levels, he said.

"Destroying the crop should not be the first or only option," he said.

Todd, who watched her crop go up in flames, said the hemp that was being destroyed could have been turned into medicine to help ailing children.

"It's devastating," she said. "This could have gone to help so many people."

Todd said she was paid about $18,000 by a Kentucky processor for her hemp crop. She said she had not been asked to reimburse the payment.

State officials said they would not rescind Todd's license to grow hemp.

She was approved for up to 6 acres of hemp this year, but she said she won't raise that much. She said she'll probably grow no more than an acre, and predicted that the state's handling of her crop will cause other growers to cut back on production.

"I'm not going to raise 6 acres and take the chance of it not passing the THC scale," she said. "I'm not going to have them burn it again."

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This story has been clarified to reflect that Todd cultivated most, but not all of the 100 pounds (45 kilograms) being burned.