(The Tennessean-Nashville) Manufacturers use hemp in plastics, insulation and even a little paper. Health food lovers eat hemp seeds by the handful for the protein and omega-3 fats. Hemp clothes, shoes and handbags sell for top dollar, prized for durability.

But while hemp fields abound in Canada and Europe, only a few acres of the plant are grown in the U.S. Authorities outlawed the crop a half-century ago because of its affiliation with its high-inducing cousin marijuana, even though the industrial variety contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC.

Ten states, including Kentucky, have removed barriers to hemp production, and state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Fields, wants to bring it back to Tennessee. He's drafting a bill that would legalize it here.

The key to success, he said, is educating his lawmaker colleagues about the differences between industrial hemp and marijuana and the financial benefits to farmers.

"Their biggest fear is that, if they support hemp, people will think they support marijuana," Niceley said. "That's a cousin of hemp, but cornbread is a cousin of moonshine."

Some doubt whether hemp can be the job-producing cash crop Niceley envisions. Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, said there will be federal hoops to jump through, and farmers in his district are not clamoring for it.

"On occasion, Sen. Niceley does things for political reasons more than for good policy," LundĀ­berg said.

Top law enforcement officials in Tennessee are aware of Niceley's effort to legalize industrial hemp but have stopped short of voicing an official opinion.

Franklin County Sheriff Tim Fuller, president of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, said that he and other sheriffs are wary of the idea, but that it is difficult to comment before the bill is finished.

"I can tell you that it will be discussed," said David Moore, president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. "I've just got to do some more research."

Ideal conditions

Some agricultural researchers are excited about the prospect.

Tennessee State University's Dharma Pitchay said the state is ideal for industrial hemp production, especially in areas with acidic soil and a high water table. The varieties used for rope, fabric and manufacturing are easily distinguished from marijuana, he said.

Industrial hemp is tall and narrow at 6 feet or higher, is densely planted, and can be harvested 70 to 110 days after planting. Marijuana is a short, squat bush.

He lauds industrial hemp for its weed and pest resistance, and for putting organic matter back into the soil with its deep roots, making it ideal for crop rotation. Farmers can expect a return of $250-$300 an acre, he said.

Despite the two plants' biological differences, states that have legalized hemp crops remain bound by federal law, which does not differentiate between marijuana and hemp.

"Any person who grows marijuana without a DEA registration ... is committing a felony violation of the Controlled Substances Act," said Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman Dawn Dearden.

At the request of police in Kentucky, the state's attorney general issued a letter in September that said farmers who grow industrial hemp could face "potential criminal liability and the possible seizure of property by federal or state law enforcement agencies."

Federal policy has made it difficult for farmers to even get seeds for research to see what works and what doesn't, Pitchay said. It's an interesting conundrum, he said, given that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp.

States that remove hemp bans will be one step closer to capitalizing on the crop if the federal government tweaks its policy, said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the national Vote Hemp group.

"Any state that has legislation in place would get a jump on other states," he said. "Since they have everything in place if that were to change on the federal level ... they could be off the ground and running in the first year."

Giving the crop a try

Third-generation Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin, who began experimenting indoors before Colorado lifted its ban on hemp production, is even further ahead of the pack. He planted 55 acres of the legal crop in May.

"I haven't sold it yet. It's still in my barn," said Loflin, whose farm is in Springfield, Colo. "We're processing it, handpicking the seeds. Next year, we're going to plant 2,000 acres, hopefully. I have several cousins that farm in southern Colorado, and we're all getting together. We're going to irrigate."

He said he thinks he can get double the economic return Pitchay estimated because he'll be growing organic hemp.

Contact Heidi Hall at 615-726-5977 or hhall@tennessean.com.