By Michelle Dupler
A federal Farm Bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in December opens the door for legal industrial hemp farming nationwide, but it remains to be seen exactly how the crop will be regulated as a legal commodity in Washington state.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture has said it will continue to allow industrial hemp farming under current limited regulations until the Legislature chooses to amend the law in light of federal action.
“Federal law changed the way the federal government looks at hemp. It could open the door for hemp production in the state if the Legislature wants to move that way,” said Chris McGann, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture.
Like marijuana, industrial hemp is derived from the cannabis plant. The distinction is that industrial hemp by state and federal law must contain less than 0.3 percent THC — the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — by dry weight. Washington state law defines marijuana as all parts of the cannabis plant with a THC concentration greater than 0.3 percent, according to the Liquor and Cannabis Board.
McGann noted that Washington doesn’t allow for a grower to produce both industrial hemp and cannabis plants for legal marijuana sales. In fact, the state requires a buffer zone of four miles between the two types of crops to ensure no cross-pollination.
Industrial hemp typically is grown for fiber and used in products like rope, cloth, paper, animal bedding and construction materials. Hemp oil also may be used in food and cosmetics, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Federal law has included cannabis as a whole — including industrial hemp — on the class of Schedule I narcotics, making it illegal to produce.
But federal and state policy toward industrial hemp have been evolving over the past several years, first with the 2014 Farm Bill, which authorized states to set up pilot programs to license growing of industrial hemp crops, according to a news release from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
After the 2014 federal legislation, Washington state started a pilot program allowing licenses to grow and process hemp to research the cultivation and marketing of the crop, according to the Department of Agriculture website.
The pilot program was authorized by the Legislature in 2016 and currently licenses two farms that grow hemp; three combined growers, processors and marketers; and four additional growers and marketers.
In April 2018, McConnell, along with Senators Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, introduced the bipartisan Hemp Farming Act of 2018 to remove industrial hemp from Schedule I and define it as an agricultural commodity.
That legislation was included as a provision in the broader Farm Bill and passed as law last month.
“So what exactly will this legislation do? The Farm Bill we passed … both legalizes hemp as an agricultural commodity and removes it from the controlled substances list,” McConnell said in a news release. “It gives states the opportunity to be the primary overseers of hemp production. It also allows hemp researchers to apply for competitive federal grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and made hemp eligible for crop insurance. Together, these features will encourage new opportunities for struggling farmers and their families. New products for use in construction, health care and manufacturing. And new jobs in a broad range of fields.”
Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, chairman of the Washington State House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, said he expects to see a bill in the 2019 legislative session tackling changes in how the state regulates industrial hemp and creating more opportunities for farmers.
“I am hoping this state can move forward on industrial hemp,” Blake said. “I have been in discussion with some folks. I am hopeful we can move a bill this session that improves the conditions for hemp growers.”
Although no bill regarding industrial hemp had been pre-filed, and Blake was uncertain whether it would be introduced first to his committee or the Commerce & Gaming Committee, some potential reforms he thought could be made included simplifying access to industrial hemp seed and reducing buffer requirements so that more crops could be grown.
“There are some things we can do now that there’s been a breakthrough at the federal level to get more acres planted,” Blake said.
Also in state cannabis-related policy, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the Marijuana Justice Initiative, a program to grant clemency for adults age 21 and over with one misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction on their criminal record.
Convictions in Washington state between Jan. 1, 1998 and Dec. 5, 2012 — when marijuana possession became legal under Initiative 502 — will be pardoned under the announced program. An estimated 3,500 people may be eligible, according to a news release.
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