Kentucky is one of the nation’s top hemp producers. Here are some things you should know about it.Jeff Faughender/Louisville Courier Journal
To some it seems taboo. But a nationally renowned pain doctor says a four-letter word can ease aches and anxiety without the risk of addiction: H-E-M-P.
“It’s gonna be the next big thing,” said Dr. James Patrick Murphy, a former president of the Greater Louisville Medical Society who treats patients in Kentucky and Indiana.
Hemp won’t alleviate acute pain, Murphy said, but it can lessen more moderate pain — allowing some patients to reduce or stop taking addictive pain pills that fuel the heroin and opioid epidemic.
With Louisville losing an average of one person a day to drug overdoses, doctors and patients are scrambling to find safer ways to treat pain.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved hemp products for use as medicine, and clinical trials on cannabinoids or CBD oil — extracted from the hemp flower —are pending. But Murphy and other doctors seethe oil as a promising option, and many people who are trying it for themselves say it works.
“People are coming in using this stuff,” Murphy said. “We have to learn about it.”
CBD oil has been credited with significantly reducing the severity of violent and potentially deadly epileptic seizures — especially in children.And hemp seeds are considered a “superfood,” rich in omegas and protein.
Yet the hemp plantis often confused and dismissed as a forbidden relative of marijuana.
“Cheers” actor Woody Harrelson grabbed national attention in June 1996 by planting four hemp seeds in Eastern Kentucky on a Lee County farm. His arrest was a stunt to highlight the difference between pot and hemp.
Both are the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. And they have the same pointy leafs and pungent scent. But hemp has a breadth of uses and a negligible amount of the mind-altering ingredient THC.
“Cars can run on hemp oil,” the actor wrote in a letter published in Courier Journal after his arrest. “Environmentally friendly detergents, plastics, paints, varnishes, cosmetics and textiles are already being made from it” in Europe.
Still, U.S. lawmakers would take nearly two decades longer to embrace it.
A federal law many dub the “2014 Farm Bill” cleared a path for its comeback.
Now Kentucky is among the nation’s top producers, trailing Colorado.
Brian Furnish, an eighth-generation tobacco farmer, was among the first in decades to legally plant hemp seeds in Kentucky soil. He grows and promotes hemp as an executive with Ananda Hemp, one of the commonwealth’s largest growers.
Furnish is not only a grower, he’s a consumer. He says a few drops of CBD oil ease his neck and back pain due to old football injuries and heavy lifting of feed sacks and other strenuous chores.
Now, he doesn’t work the farm without it.
‘I feel great’
Murphy is among the doctors who first learned about the potential benefits of hemp from their patients.
Curious, he did some research, reading about CBD oil and even testing it on himself for four days. Although he didn’t need it for pain, he verified it didn’t give him a buzz or any negative side effects.
He decided to recommend it to 200 patients.
About 90 percent of the 175 who tried CBD oil spray or pills reported benefits, such as fewer migraines and tension headaches and more tolerable leg and back pain and arthritis, he said. Others had more restful sleep and less anxiety.
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But it’s not for everyone.
Murphy doesn’t recommend it to patients who are taking blood thinners or who have heart conditions.
And a small number of his patients opted to stop taking hemp after becoming dizzy. Others didn’t notice any relief from migraines or enough relief from severe pain.
Those who opted not to try hemp included an elderly patient whose husband wouldn’t let her try anything related to marijuana.
Dr. Bruce Nicholson, a Pennsylvania pain expert, also recommends hemp to many of his patients.
Dozens have reduced or stopped taking opioids, he said. Patients reported less trembling from neuropathy and relief from achy muscles. The doctor personally uses hemp several times a week, rubbing a cream on his achy joints.
“In the medical profession, we knew nothing about it,” said Nicholson, who began reading up on it about three years ago.
Nicholson estimates that as many as 80 percent of his patients suffering from chronic pain also face anxiety or depression. He said hemp can help that too.
“Now I recommend it every day to my patients,” he said.
Lisa Whitaker, 50, one of Murphy’s patients on disability for migraines and herniated discs, said CBD oil didn’t ease her severe headaches but did help her back pain.
It took four to six weeks before she noticed significant relief.
“This has been a lifesaver,” Whitaker said.
Southern Indiana resident Valerie Reed, 36, said she began a daily regimen of the oil about a year ago after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She didn’t want to take the narcotic her doctor prescribed because of a host of potentially “scary” side effects.
Within months, she said: “The tremors, shaking, that’s gone.”
Severe headaches on her right side also eased and she could bear hip pain from walking.
Reed said she told her neurologist and her general practitioner she was using the hemp product daily. “Both were OK with it.”
“As long as I take it, I feel great,” she said.
Riley Cote, a Canadian native known as a bruiser on the ice during his tenure with the National Hockey League, said hemp eases his arthritis and inflammation and helps him relax and fall into a deeper sleep. He has become a hemp activist, starting the Hemp Heals Foundation and encouraging former Philadelphia Flyer teammates and other athletes to use the oil instead of opioids, sleeping pills and muscle relaxers.
Cote came to Kentucky recently to tour Ananda Hemp’s farm in Harrison County, northeast of Lexington. The company imported hemp seeds from Australia and has expanded its crops to cover 500 acres in Kentucky with plans to keep growing.
“It’s just gonna get bigger and better,” the retired hockey star said of the hemp industry. “We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Where’s the proof?
It’s easy to find someone who claims using hemp oil with CBD helped them feel better or sleep better.
But doctors, scientists and others — including the FDA — are eager for clinical proof.
Some promising research came out in May.
An article published in the May 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, reported the results of an extensive clinical trial led by Dr. Orrin Devinsky and colleagues. It found that CBD hemp oil lessened the frequency of violent and dangerous seizures in children and young adults with Dravet syndrome, a complex childhood epilepsy disorder with a high rate of death.
Barry Lambert, an investor in Ananda Hemp’s parent company, Ecofibre, who grew up on a dairy farm in the Australia Bush, wrote a testimonial on how CBD oil saved his granddaughter’s life from debilitating seizures that “tore away at her brain and body every 15 seconds.”
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Research on other potential health benefits is underway across the nation.
Kentucky is leading the way with 17 studies at seven universities: the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky, Sullivan University, Western Kentucky, Murray State, Morehead and Kentucky State, said Brent Burchett, head of the state Department of Agriculture’s division of value-added plant production.
University of Louisville’s research includes evaluating hemp as a fuel source.
The University of Kentucky is examining the best growing conditions of hemp and plans to study the oil in mice for two years. If they find negative side effects, it could lead the FDA to pull projects from shelves, said Joe Chappell, a professor of drug design and discovery.
If they don’t find problems, he said it could help clear the way for its mainstream use.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal information, of course. There can be some relief from pain and inflammation,” he said.
Chappell hopes to lead testing to answer these questions: “Who is it safe for? For what duration? At what doses?”
It’s too soon to know the full scope of how much money the leafy crop can bring farmers, processors and businesses — or how many ways it can benefit pain sufferers.
‘Questions and curiosity’
Consider it the new era of hemp.
Furnish describes his farming family as “very old style, conservative people” initially leery of hemp.
But after deciphering fact from fiction surrounding the controversial crop, he has taken a leadership role in the hemp movement.
“Hemp will keep another eight generations of farmers working the land,” he said.
Individual states can now pass laws allowing industrial hemp to be grown under a pilot program. The state was among the first to give the go-ahead in 2014, but farmers and processors must gain approval from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Seventy-four of the state’s 120 counties are growing and/or processing the diverse plant, according to the agriculture department’s most current figures. That includes Jefferson County, which has 10 growers or processors.
Hemp has been used in more than 25,000 products, from foods, supplements, textiles, paper to building materials, bath products and cosmetics, according to a March report by the Congressional Research Service. It’s even a fiberglass alternative for cars and planes.
Hemp sales in the United States are at nearly $600 million annually, according to the report.
“I don’t know of another crop that has that many uses — well more than corn, soy or cotton,” said Duane Sinning, manager of Colorado’s industrial hemp program.
“The interest is higher” today in growing hemp and using its products, he said. “I think it’ll continue to grow.”
Many predict the variety of hemp products and use across the state and nation will continue to increase if studies back up the many anecdotal claims of health benefits.
That could push Congress to ease or remove federal restrictions.
Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said he’s working with lawmakers to remove hemp from the list of controlled substances.
“We owe it to farmers to explore all aspects of industrial hemp,” he said, “just like soybeans in the 1960s when they were an experimental crop.”
Wellness experts at Rainbow Blossom Kentuckiana markets are doing their part to promote hemp products. They co-hosted “hemp week” in June, fielding questions from customers.
Summer Auerbach, the natural food stores’ second-generation owner, said “people are coming in with a lot of questions and curiosity” about hemp.
She’s a customer herself, rubbing a hemp salve on her shoulders, neck and jaw before bed. She said the CBD oil in the balm lessens tightness and aches from temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ, and she awakens with fewer headaches.
“It’s exciting to see so much of the innovation of hemp in Kentucky,” she said. “We’re not even close to seeing what it can do.”