OLYMPIA — The once-promising campaign to legalize hemp cultivation in Washington may be withering.
In one of the first bills passed this year, the Senate in February unanimously approved no-frills legislation declaring hemp an agricultural crop.
The House and hemp advocates, however, favored state oversight to ensure the cannabis crop doesn’t get tainted by cross-pollinating with marijuana or run afoul of federal authorities, who categorize hemp as a controlled substance.
The Washington Department of Agriculture estimates providing that regulation would cost at least $900,000 a year. WSDA could collect fees from hemp farmers, but the agency says it would still need $400,000 to $500,000 right away from general taxes to get the program started.
Neither House nor Senate budget writers, responsible for producing a balanced spending plan, have proposed allocating the money to make legalizing hemp possible this year.
Hemp legislation, Senate Bill 5012, has languished for the past month in the House Appropriations Committee. “That bill is probably not moving,” WSDA policy assistant Steve Fuller said Tuesday.
Hemp lobbyist Joy Beckerman Maher said her optimism has turned to pessimism. “I’m no longer confident the hemp bill will pass this year,” she said.
Beckerman Maher argued for a state role in protecting the low-THC purity of hemp seeds and crops. Now, she says, the proposed oversight has become unnecessarily expensive, citing a provision that would require a WSDA employee to personally collect hemp seeds for testing.
Fuller said WSDA wants to protect the integrity of testing seeds, but is ready to follow any direction from lawmakers.
Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, sponsored SB 5012, but a House committee rewrote it. The measure has little resemblance to the two-page bill Hatfield introduced.
Hatfield said Tuesday he still favors a light regulatory touch. “The simpler, the better. That hasn’t changed,” he said.
“The problem is that the more regulations, the more monitoring in place, the more expensive it is,” he said. “Maybe in the special session we’ll be able to have a discussion about what is and what isn’t necessary.”
Early in the session, legalizing hemp seemed like a natural step in a state with voter-approved recreational marijuana. Hemp supporters say the crop has many uses, including livestock bedding and feed, and invoke the memory of the nation’s Founding Fathers, who cultivated hemp.
Lawmakers, however, are not obliged to legalize growing hemp and are unsure of the expense. WSDA says it can only make rough guesses at the cost of regulating hemp. The U.S. does not yet have a commercial hemp crop, so it’s too soon to look at what has happened in the eight states that have legalized hemp farming.
The bill’s provisions include:
• A $30 per acre licensing fee.
• Farmers must annually submit hemp samples to be tested for THC. Fees could be charged to cover testing costs.
• Authorizes WSDA to inspect hemp growers’ land, buildings and records when it suspects violations.