By Ralph Massullo, MD | Citrus County Chronicle

All of us like to give and receive gifts, particularly this time of the year. Occasionally we’ll receive that unique gift that we just don’t quite know how we may make good use of it. It could be an odd oversized sweater or a piece of art that really doesn’t fit our taste. We are grateful for the gesture, but often these gifts either get quietly exchanged or put away to a place seldom to be seen again. Sometimes however we may find a use for them that we didn’t predict and very often they become more valuable than we ever imagined. Industrial hemp is such a gift, not only to our community but to all of Florida.

Last legislative session we passed a bill allowing for a pilot program to study the viability to grow, process, and commercially market industrial hemp in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law and currently the Florida Department of Agricultural is working on rules that will govern how the project is executed which will most likely be completed by February 2018. Once the rules are finalized and adopted, the project can start in earnest. Hopefully, Citrus County will be home for one or two of the many 25-acre pilot locations throughout the state.

Hemp is often misunderstood. While it is related to cannabis (marijuana) and the male plant of the species, it is non- psychoactive. There has been some stigmatization regarding growing Hemp because of its relation to cannabis, but any harmful consequences are unfounded in fact. Hemp has no mind altering effect if smoked or ingested and in 2014 the Federal Farm Act allowed states to grow and study hemp for commercial use. Currently, we import over $500,000,000 of hemp from other countries for uses here in the United States. It would be much more cost effective if we could produce our own hemp instead of importing it.

Hemp has been used for centuries in rope and binding materials, but today there are thouands of uses from cooking oils, to cosmetics, to resins, to clothing, to insulating and building materials, to automobile parts, to nutritional supplements, to fiber for animal bedding and many others and many yet to be discovered. Hemp actually cleans the soil of pollutants as it grows and is anti-bacterial and pest resistant. It should do well in our climate and become a valuable crop for our state.

In our community, hemp means jobs and an improvement in our economy. It will herald new clean industries, not only in agriculture but also manufacturing. In time it could actually exceed the citrus crop value state wide which is coincidentally steadily declining for a number of reasons and is projected this year to be as low as in the 1940s. We need to continually look for alternatives to supplant lost industries and provide new and better jobs for our youth. Hemp is proverbially “ripe for the picking.”

Several years ago at Christmas I received a jacket I never thought I could use; a unique gift. Recently, one of my daughters was home visiting and rummaging through my closet as is often her habit. She found that jacket, put it on, liked it and told me she was taking it. When I see her now in photos wearing the jacket and enjoying it my heart is full, and it was all because of that “unique gift.” This year Florida has given us industrial hemp. It is truly a “unique gift.” Let’s work together to ensure we put it to good use and make our community and state a better place in the process.

Dr. Ralph Massullo is the Florida’s District 34 state representative, which serves Citrus County.