Winchester-based GenCanna, working with a University of Kentucky plant scientist, announced on Monday it has developed the “Holy Grail” of hemp: A strain with no THC.
“In two years of collaboration, using GenCanna’s genetics and biotechnology developed at the University of Kentucky by Dr. (David) Hildebrand and his team, we have the first product. A patentable 0.0 percent THC hemp genetic,” said Steve Bevan, GenCanna president.
Hildebrand said that UK’s researchers working with GenCanna’s varieties lines have been able to generate through breeding and other genetic techniques, “a wide variety of hemp lines, both on CBD and THC, with some THC lines ... averaging 0.0 percent THC.”
They grew the hemp last year in field trials on the university’s farm on the north side of Fayette County.
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“This is monumental for the industry. GenCanna is proud to announce a new outdoor cannabis line, OC00, with this 0.0 percent THC genetics. Why is this important? Zero point zero percent THC is the Holy Grail of hemp,” Bevan said.
The new strain will draw a clear line between marijuana and hemp, said Jonathan Miller, the Lexington attorney who chairs the Hemp Roundtable. “This step ... is really really huge,” he said. Many universities are scared of hemp research, he said, but UK has been on the leading edge.
The new plant is “a potential game-changer not just for industrial hemp in Kentucky but nationwide,” said Ryan Quarles, Agriculture Commissioner. “One of the biggest issues we’ve struggled with ... is how to properly test for it, test for THC, which is what separates it from its illicit cousin. So if one day we have cloned product or certified seed we know with confidence has zero THC in it, it’s going to make it a lot easier for us ... to oversee the hemp program.”
By law, industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC; crops with more than that must be destroyed. A handful of Kentucky farmers have had to destroy crops that have developed higher levels than expected.
“We expect this will open up a whole new sphere of hemp and hemp-derived products,” Bevan said. “Outdoor cannabis will now become a regular farmed commodity, starting in Kentucky and starting with GenCanna’s certified farming network.”
Researchers also are developing ways to tell the levels of THC and other cannabinoids from individual plants via simple hand-held devices or with drones, he said.
Companies that produce cannabidiol now sell supplements that contain very low amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, the high-inducing chemical in marijuana.
But even low levels of THC metabolites can show up on drug screens, a problem for workers in critical jobs and for people who are routinely drug tested by their doctors for other medications.
A bill filed earlier this month would require public employers to allow for an appeals process if employees test positive for miniscule amounts. Called “Shauna’s Bill,” Senate Bill 83 was filed by State Sen. Perry Clark, D-Louisville, after Powell County EMT Shauna Staton had to fight to get her job back after she took CBD oil that caused a positive drug test.
By eliminating the THC in the plant, producers could market a product guaranteed not to cause a problem with a drug test.
Kentucky has moved to the forefront of hemp production after President Trump signed into law federal legalization on Dec. 20. Quarles announced last week that about 42,000 acres are scheduled to be planted in Kentucky this year.
Quarles said Monday about 70 percent of Kentucky’s hemp will be used to produce hemp oil, which is sought for the various health benefits that proponents attribute to cannabinoids.
“Over 1,000 Kentucky farmers will have the opportunity to grow industrial hemp in 2019,” he said. “Industrial hemp is no longer a novelty; it’s on its way towards commercialization and becoming a commodity in Kentucky agriculture’s portfolio. In 2017, it had $17 million worth of sales. And although we’re waiting for our economic data, it looks like we’re going to have a 300 percent increase in 2018, with over $50 million in sales.”
Bevan said that GenCanna will plant test plots of the zero THC variety this year but expects to move to large-scale plantings next year and eventually may make the seed available to others.
“We’re going to make sure we can properly explain to our farmers how this new genetic will perform, so we’ll have some experimental plots in several places in Kentucky,” Bevan said. “As we are able to expand production, we’ll make this and other genetic developments available to other non-GenCanna farmers.”
GenCanna employs about 160 in Winchester and expects to employ a similar number at a new facility it is establishing in Western Kentucky.
State Sen. Ralph Alvarado, who announced last week that he will be Gov. Matt Bevin running mate, said that he thinks GenCanna, which is in his home district in Clark County, will have seed “will be sought after worldwide. It’s very exciting news.”