Washington hemp: What a difference a year makes

WA Hemp for the web

By Joy Beckerman

An incredible thing happened over the last year. The Washington State Legislature experienced a convergence of industrial hemp awareness based on facts from a number of sources, and we are seeing very different hemp bills this session compared to those introduced last year. Before diving into the current legislation, let’s clarify that Washington has not yet passed any hemp legislation, and that currently there are only marijuana cultivation laws and regulations on the books (that’s right folks, we legalized weed in Washington before legalizing industrial hemp). Fear not, however, because legal hemp cultivation is most definitely coming to Washington!

The current session’s dueling hemp bills are between the same two members as last year’s dueling hemp bills: Sen. Brian Hatfield (D–Raymond) and Rep. Matt Shea (R–Spokane Valley). These two gentlemen, along with their co-sponsors, are surely the hemp heroes of the Legislature. Over the last year, they have both clearly been paying attention to the information being presented to them, in conjunction with their consciousness of the liberating legal developments that have taken place with industrial hemp on a federal level.

Along with grassroots meetings and public testimony last year to dispel common myths and irrational hysteria surrounding the oilseed and fiber type of Cannabis sativa, “Industrial Hemp Edu-Kits” were distributed to every member of the Legislature and to Gov. Jay Inslee by the Washington State Chapter of the Hemp Industries Association. These Edu-Kits contained a plethora of at-a-glance information, hemp seed oil, fiber, food and product samples, and a copy of the new award-winning hemp documentary “Bringing it Home.” In addition to in-state bombardment, the Feds filed (and have since re-filed) bills to remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. They also signed into law Section 7606 of the Federal Farm Bill (the “Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research”), which authorizes institutions of higher education or departments of agriculture in states where hemp is legal to grow hemp for research or agricultural pilot programs.

Both Sen. Hatfield and Rep. Shea come from agricultural legislative districts and have recognized the spectrum of economic and environmental benefits potentially offered by the versatile, valuable and sustainable industrial hemp crop. The enormous differences from last year are the regulations contained within this year’s bills. Sen. Hatfield’s current bill, SB 5012, contains basically no regulation — zero, nada, zilch — which means, if his bill passes, he is leaving all of the regulating to the Washington Department of Agriculture for future determination. The current version of Rep. Shea’s bill, HB 1552, contains only the minimal regulations necessary to promote a successful hemp industry in Washington State, along with dots of regulation subsequently requested by and granted to interested parties such as the Department of Agriculture and Washington State Patrol. It is critical to implement at least some regulation so as to avoid setting Washington up for certain hemp failure right out of the gate.

Another significant difference is that Sen. Hatfield’s bill also excludes any reference to fiscal concerns, and these concerns are very real. The state Department of Agriculture testified strongly about these serious financial needs at the public hearings on last year’s hemp bills because it is simply not possible to create, implement and manage a hemp program for free. The Department of Agriculture has to have a way to fund the hemp program. Rep. Shea’s bill acknowledges this fact and sets reasonable fees to commence hemp introduction ($10 per acre at present), while also recognizing that the Department of Agriculture will need to fund additional services required by the hemp crop, such as a certified pedigreed seed system.

As this issue of Marijuana Venture goes to print, the state Senate unanimously passed SB 5012, which is now being shepherded to the House Commerce and Gaming Committee for further consideration. Here’s where it will become particularly interesting, because bills can be substituted at many points during their journeys through the legislative process, including by competing and opposing members. Rep. Shea’s competing hemp bill, HB 1552, is strategically co-sponsored by no less than five of the nine members who comprise the House Commerce and Gaming Committee. This means that five of the nine members now tasked with considering Sen. Hatfield’s bill actually have a vested interest in seeing that Rep. Shea’s competing bill passes. The committee could substitute Sen. Hatfield’s bill with the provisions from Rep. Shea’s bill.

The upside to this is that Rep. Shea’s bill removes the risk that the Department of Agriculture will create and implement unnecessary or irrational regulation, or impose outrageous licensing fees (such as the excessive regulation and licensing fees currently being peddled by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to the residents of Oregon). Furthermore, Rep. Shea’s bill wisely directs the Washington State Department of Agriculture to work with the Liquor Control Board to address the potential for cross-pollination between marijuana and hemp crops and to mitigate that potential (see the February issue of Marijuana Venture or www.marijuanaventure.com for more on this subject).

Many residents feel compelled to want to “free the seed.” They ignorantly choose to believe that farmers can just plant random hemp seeds (most of which is actually black market hemp grain that sprouts) and magical, viable hemp plants will grow that can actually fill orders for the sophisticated fiber, seed and seed oil markets that exist today. Don’t believe everything you think. That’s a myth, a fantasy and hype leftover from the 1990s. There is a responsible way to reintroduce the industrial hemp crop to Washington State, and this is done by creating a very minimal regulatory foundation that will foster the greatest chance of success.

With no research, no minor regulation or no certified pedigreed system on a commercial level, Washington won’t be able to maintain the integrity of its hemp crops. The state’s new market will not be taken seriously by the investors and manufacturers who want specific hemp fibers, seeds and derivatives for their products, whether they be for human or animal consumption, paper, textiles, biocomposites, nanocellulose, cosmeceutical or industrial oil purposes, etc. Cannabis is a weedy plant genus, and without crop maintenance, these characteristics of industrial hemp would easily go awry if the crop is not maintained:

– Crop vigor;

– Increase in the number of male plants in the field, which will decrease yield;

– Change in the nutritional profile, which would be disastrous since the food industry will be Washington’s largest industry from the outset due to seed harvesting not requiring additional processing infrastructure or equipment;

– Difference in rates of plant maturity;

– Non-uniformity of crop height, causing harvest to be difficult because of varying height; and

– Cannabinoid profile genetic drifts, with cannabinoids being the most heritable genetic trait of the crop.

This is compounded by the fact that the very seeds that are desirable and meet current market demands are from breeders who insist upon only selling their seeds where the crop will be maintained for all of the reasons set forth above; and from countries, such as Canada, which require the seeds to be sold only to entities that can provide proof of both state registration and federal permit (the federal version being the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act Permit issued by the DEA).

 

Finally, the state Department of Agriculture, Washington State Police and even the state Department of Revenue have expressed concern for the need to conduct THC field testing of industrial hemp so that all the various state agencies can do their jobs without confusion as those functions relate to marijuana law and policy enforcement. This testing also requires money and human resources. If Rep. Shea’s bill passes in its current form, residents and farmers will be assured of the nominal regulatory framework for Washington’s coming hemp crop; but if Sen. Hatfield’s bill passes in its current form, Washingtonians will be at the mercy of the Department of Agriculture to create all of the regulations and set all of the fees, which is quite risky. Goodness knows we’re going to see both bills evolve as they move forward.

 

Either way, both members should be commended on not only being champions of industrial hemp, but particularly for their very impressive receptivity to the facts and hard data that they have been presented with during the last year. These members “get it” regarding industrial hemp, and they are both shining examples of how effective concerted grassroots hemp activism and consistent healthy doses of common sense can be. Keep watching — this is the most exciting legislative session ever!

Joy Beckerman is the president of Hemp Ace International and president of the Washington chapter of the Hemp Industries Association.

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