Hemp makes its debut in the state named for the plant's most famous supporter
Long before social media, one of the first memes to make its way into public consciousness was an image of a word balloon stamped next to George Washington on dollar bills that read “I grew hemp.”
But while the Sage of Mount Vernon may have told his gardener to “make the most of the Indian hemp seed and sow it everywhere,” the versatile crop has been illegal for nearly 100 years in the country he helped start.
That is finally beginning to change as 31 states have now passed legislation legalizing hemp production.
Among these states is the one named after the country’s first president, where farmers in June planted the first hemp crop under a new state law that finally — after years of pressure by advocacy groups — allows the plant to be grown in Washington. HempLogic of Moses Lake received one of the first permits for seeds, and a farmer with 3,000 acres of farmland recently planted 75 of those acres with hemp.
“It’s always a great sign when things come full circle,” says Joy Beckerman of the Washington Hemp Industries Association. “And it’s coming back.”
In 2016, according to Vote Hemp, farmers in 15 states grew nearly 10,000 acres of the plant and those numbers are expected to grow significantly in 2017. The first Washington harvest is expected this fall.
Coming full circle
By Brian Beckley
Hemp’s history in the United States begins in the colonial era.
According to activist Joy Beckerman of the Washington Hemp Industries Association, the continent’s first hemp law was passed in the Jamestown colony in 1619 and ordered all farmers to try growing the plant. Other colonies passed similar laws, including a Virginia law in the 1760s that allowed for farmers not growing the plant to be jailed. It was even accepted as currency in some locations during the 18th century. By the 1850 U.S. Census, there were more than 8,300 hemp plantations throughout the country, which does not include smaller family farms or private gardens.
In 1910, a $10 federal reserve note was even printed featuring an image of hemp farmers on the back.
But things changed in 1937 when hemp was included as part of the Marihuana Tax Act, essentially making the crop illegal. However, when war broke out a few years later, even the federal government promoted the growing and harvesting of hemp as a way to aid the cause and preserve other resources for the war effort, resulting in more than 440,000 tons being produced.
In 1941, for example, Popular Mechanics magazine published a story titled “Pinch Hitters for Defense” that promoted the many uses of hemp and included images of a car that Henry Ford “grew from the soil.” The vehicle featured plastic panels made from hemp, described in the article as having an “impact strength 10 times greater than steel.”
But when the war ended, hemp once again disappeared from American fields, though not necessarily from store shelves.
Today, 80 years after Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry Anslinger made it illegal, a total of 31 states have now approved hemp programs, once again opening the market to all the possibilities the plant has to offer.
The Evergreen State
Hemp’s journey to Washington was made possible by the 2014 federal Farm Bill that allows states to create agricultural pilot programs for industrial hemp and a 2015 Washington state law that was written specifically to develop a program that complies with that law.
Somewhat ironically, Washington was far more progressive with its marijuana laws than legislation related to industrial hemp. Washington voters approved medical marijuana usage in 1998 and approved recreational adult-use in 2012. However, marijuana’s industrial cousin remained illegal. With the passage of the 2014 federal Farm Bill, lawmakers and lobbyists in Washington addressed the idea of legalizing hemp and began crafting various pieces of legislation that would eventually become Senate Bill 6206, creating the state’s pilot program. Beckerman and the WHIA were involved in the writing of the legislation, which helped with its passage after several years of competing bills from both sides of the state house.
SB 6206 received almost universal support, passing 48-1 in the state Senate and 97-0 in the House, however, because the Legislature had not yet passed a state budget, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed the bill, despite calling it “worthy” in his message. The Legislature then overrode the governor’s veto.
Since then, the Department of Agriculture has been working on regulations to govern the state’s infant program.
“There were a lot of things we had to figure out,” Department of Agriculture spokesman Hector Castro says regarding the year spent prior to the issuance of licenses and the first plantings.
Among the decisions made were the types of licenses that would be made available. Ultimately, the state went with grower, processor, distributor and a combo license structure. The Department also needed to find a way to get seeds into the hands of the farmers hoping to plant them.
Castro says the agency solved the seed legality problem by registering with the DEA to get the authority to import hemp seeds into the state. The Department of Agriculture is the group registered to handle and control the seeds. It has created a seed acquisition form that is now on the agency’s website, which anyone can fill out.
In order to get seeds, a farmer must first fill out the form. The state will then go to the DEA for approval to get the seeds and a permit is issued to the Department of Agriculture, which is ultimately responsible for them.
In addition, because it is technically a research pilot program to determine the viability of the industry, every licensee must report back in a year on the research they said they would be conducting, be it on growth rates, products used to treat and protect the crops or just marketing research.
“It could be any number of things they focus on,” Castro says.
Other regulations include limits on the THC percentage of hemp plants (0.3%), buffer zones between marijuana crops (four miles, designed to prevent cross pollination) and things like visible signage, required to inform passers-by and police that the fields in question are legal hemp and not marijuana.
As of late June, six licenses had been issued. Three went to growers Palmer Farms, KT Farms and Washington State University. One went to a seed distributor — HempLogic — and two more went to Native American tribes. There is no limit on the number of licenses that can be issued and Castro expects more to be announced.
“We knew there was a lot of interest,” Castro says. “We knew there would be.”
An ‘Industrial Revolution’
Unlike marijuana, the hemp plant contains little-to-no THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its intoxicating effect. Hemp has thousands of uses, including food, fuel and fiber, but will not get you high if consumed.
And while it is legal to process and sell hemp products in the United States, it is mostly illegal to grow it, which forces manufacturers to import their stocks from Canada, China or Europe.
According to Beckerman, that means American farmers are missing out on the opportunity to grow a potentially profitable crop.
“We need to re-energize the farming industry with a useful, versatile, valuable crop,” Beckerman says.
Beckerman has been a national advocate of hemp for decades, promoting the plant and its many uses as not only a renewable resource and business opportunity, but also a link to the nation’s agrarian past and an opportunity to bring more environmentally-friendly products to market. She runs the consulting and education firm Hemp Ace International and routinely speaks about the plant around the country.
“It’s an industrial revolution that’s happening,” Beckerman says. “And it’s a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs as well.”
Beckerman sees a potential boom ahead for not only farmers, but processors in Washington and talks about the “new industries” — with an emphasis on the word’s plurality — that will grow around it. Calling it the “longest, strongest fiber in the world” and a “superfood,” Beckerman can list hundreds of uses for the plant, ranging from human and animal consumption to paper and textiles to plastics and bio-composites. Nanotechnology is another exciting use for hemp, because, as Beckerman points out, recent studies have shown that hemp cellulose has a tensile strength “second only to graphite whiskers and carbon nano-tubes.”
“This discovery is major,” she says.
Right now, Washington doesn’t have any real hemp infrastructure, but will soon have a need that is just waiting for entrepreneurs to jump on.
“Whoever builds the first of these processing facilities are going to be the kings and queens,” Beckerman says.
While she calls hemp a “fast-growing, versatile plant” that is “tough” and relatively easy to grow, she acknowledges that it is also a “hungry” crop that needs a lot of nitrogen, potassium, sulfur and phosphorus. She also calls the harvesting and storage “challenging” because different equipment is necessary depending on whether it’s being processed for fiber or oil.
Despite some uncertainty ahead and several problems still to be solved, Beckerman says she is excited that Washington is positioning itself to take the lead in hemp oil, seed and fiber production. The Washington Hemp Industries Association will continue to work to improve the current regulations and plans to support the farmers and business making their way in this new sector of the economy.
“We need to further engage and improve the rules and law to remove barriers to entry to fulfill the vision this state has for this promising crop and industry,” she says.