Bruce Schreiner, Associated Press
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2015, file photo, hemp plants tower above researchers who tend to them at a research farm in Lexington, Ky.

SALT LAKE CITY — Five months ago, what Bruce Bugbee is doing now was illegal. But today, it is considered groundbreaking research changing the landscape of Utah agriculture with a stigmatized plant that has a controversial history.

Bugbee, director of Utah State University's crop physiology laboratory, is growing hemp in a controlled environment on campus to research the plant with hopes to improve the yield and quality of the crop, as is done with every other Utah crop the lab researches.

In December, Congress passed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the Farm Bill of 2018, which legalized the industrial production of hemp and made hemp producers eligible for the federal crop insurance program.

"It's definitely a rapid transition," Bugbee said. "This is a brand new agricultural crop, I mean in some ways it's not new because it's been around for thousands of years, but in essence it's new."

The university has implemented a lot of security measures to protect the crop, Bugbee said.

"The crop looks just like marijuana, that's why there's so much security," he said. "You can't tell by looking whether it's marijuana or it's botanical medicines' hemp."

A common mistake people make is with the terminology of the plant, he explained. The hemp strain of the cannabis plant does not produce the intoxication that the marijuana strain produces.

The strain Bugbee and his team are working with has federally approved low tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, levels. In other words, this strain won't get anyone high.

The research has garnered massive interest, and Bugbee's spoken at and been invited to speak at several different conferences about the work.

In parallel with the yield and quality improvements, the researchers are also looking to improve the genetics of the plant, he said.

As for a timeline on the research, Bugbee said it's ongoing but he hopes to publish scientific articles in a peer-reviewed research journal within the next few months.

Bill Doucette, an environmental chemist in Utah State's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Bugbee have previously worked with federal and state agencies and private companies to study "the use of plants to remove organic compounds from contaminated soils," according to a news release.

The hemp research builds on their past collaborative studies.

A potential partnership with the University of Utah's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology is also being explored.

Karen Wilcox, chairwoman of the U. department, said a possible partnership is exciting.

"We try to find new therapies for both epilepsy and pain," she said. “Chronic pain is a very severe problem in the United States and its treatment of pain is, as we now understand, is probably not best to do with opioids, and so we're hopeful that by looking at different kinds of combinations of extracts, you know these natural products might actually be useful in the treatment of pain.”

Growing and studying hemp is important because it will "help society lead better lives," Bugbee said.

"I mean, why do we have medicine? Pain management is one. But there's not many people in society that don't take any pharmaceuticals," he said. He noted that many commonly used medicines today, like aspirin, are originally derived from plants.

"We are one of the few universities that's doing these more advanced studies, but Canadian universities are doing this research," he said. "So it's not like we're the first in the world but we're like the first in the United States."

The research is funded by farmers and growers of the plant from Utah, Colorado and Kentucky.

"I can see a time where we're going to offer courses in the botany of cannabis for students and it will be a much more major Utah crop," Bugbee said.

Beyond medicinal benefits, the hemp plant could provide a huge boost to Utah's economy. Bugbee projects that once the nation gets past the stigma surrounding the plant, it could become a major export with several uses.

For example, a big crop out of Texas is cotton, but the state is running out of water, he pointed out.

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"Hemp can tolerate drought better than cotton and in the future I can see growing this crop, it could replace cotton in a lot of places," Bugbee predicted.

He said hemp fiber in general has a lot of properties that are better than cotton.

And he said cotton isn't the only thing hemp could replace. Hemp could replace opioids as well, according to Bugbee.

"Those are terrible, we got huge problems with opioids and these botanical medicines, they're just safer than the synthetic meth medicines. I see the day when that'll happen."