Potential federal action concerns researchers
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- A bill now in the Legislature would call on researchers at Washington State University to study the feasibility and desirability of producing industrial hemp in Washington state.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said when she was writing Senate Bill 5222, WSU researchers said they would do testing, but they were concerned about the illegality of actually growing the plant.
When Washington voters legalized the recreational use of marijuana last November, the measure defined marijuana as Cannabis sativa with more than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Cannabis with less than 0.3 percent is classified as hemp.
THC is a controlled substance at the federal level, and any cultivation of either hemp or marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The U.S. Justice Department has not indicated whether it will sue to block the state law, she said.
Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, asked about the THC level in hemp. Kohl-Welles replied, "It's not something that if you manufacture something using hemp ... that you're going to get high by sniffing it, or perhaps by chewing on rope or chewing on paper, anything like that."
Kohl-Welles said a variety of hemp products cannot be manufactured in the U.S. but are sold here. The plant was important in colonial America, especially for making rope, paper and sailcloth, and in the colony of Virginia in the 1600s farmers were required to grow hemp, she said.
It is a "green product," she said, with a positive environmental impact. The crop is valuable in rotation, requiring minimal herbicides and pesticides. It's often grown to combat soil erosion.
That aspect "kind of excites me," Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, said. "There's nothing in here that would prevent WSU from looking into its use in soil erosion."
Hemp is also a source of food and biofuel. Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, noted that Kohl-Welles' presentation showed the cost of production for hemp at $43 to produce 42 gallons of fuel, compared with corn at $85.
Canada allows the production and manufacture of hemp products, she said, and Colorado, which also legalized recreational marijuana use, is considering developing a hemp industry. The crop has a $300 million market potential in the U.S., she said.
In determining whether industrial hemp poses a market opportunity for the state, the bill directs WSU to study its use in products such as cloth, fuel, plastics, seed meal and seed oil for consumption. The university would report its findings to the Legislature by Jan. 14, 2014.