Federal lawmakers have lightened up on hemp, but the non-intoxicating plant still needs an assist from Washington’s marijuana-embracing legislators.
The new Farm Bill takes hemp off the federal list of illicit drugs, but it does not change state hemp laws.
In Washington, hemp can’t be grown within 4 miles of marijuana. That regulation helps explain why Washington has lagged behind other states in growing and processing hemp.
Washington has more than 1,200 licensed marijuana growers, according to the State Liquor and Cannabis Board. A large portion of the state is closed to hemp.
Furthermore, a marijuana producer can displace a hemp farmer. Even if the hemp farmer plants first, the later-arriving marijuana grower takes precedent.
“Why would you start a 1,000-acre hemp farm in Washington, when a marijuana farmer with one lousy greenhouse can come along, and you have to move?” asked Joy Beckerman, president of the Hemp Industries Association, a national advocacy group.
Hemp Northwest, a food maker based in Hood River, Ore., wants to press Washington-grown hemp seeds into vegetable oil and protein powder, but its only Washington supplier is the Colville Confederated Tribes, which raises hemp on its reservation.
“That 4-mile rule is definitely a big hinderance,” the company’s CEO, Tonia Farman, said. “I keep hearing from farmers that that’s a huge barrier that keeps people from wanting to get into industrial hemp in Washington.”
The state Department of Agriculture adopted the 4-mile rule in 2017 to prevent hemp from cross-pollinating with Washington’s lucrative marijuana plants. The department originally proposed a 3-mile buffer. Marijuana advocates reportedly asked for a buffer as big as 10 miles. It wasn’t a horrible outcome for hemp, considering marijuana’s ability to generate government revenue.
The state collected $319 million in taxes and license fees from the marijuana industry in the most-recent fiscal year. Meanwhile, the state lost money regulating hemp.
The state now has nine licensed hemp farmers or processors. That doesn’t reflect the level of interest, Industrial Hemp Association of Washington lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson said. “A lot of it is waiting for the state to get its act together,” she said.
Agriculture department spokesman Hector Castro said the department has no plans to propose changing the 4-mile rule or any other of its hemp rules.
“It just doesn’t make sense for us to get ahead of the Legislature,” he said. “We’re aware the 4-mile buffer is something the hemp industry has had some frustrations with.”
The state agriculture department wrote the rules based on the 2014 Farm Bill. The bill allowed hemp farming under state supervision, but did not change hemp’s status as a controlled substance. As a result, Washington controls the seed supply and prohibits the manufacture of cannabidiol, or CBD.
CBD has operated in a gray area. It’s a big part of the hemp industry and accepted in many states, even though the Drug Enforcement Administration has maintained it’s illegal. The U.S. Hemp Roundtable, a trade group, said in a legal analysis that the Farm Bill erases any doubt that CBD is legal. Efforts to obtain comment from the DEA were unsuccessful.
Peterson said she thinks legislators will lift the CBD restriction. She said Peterson said she expects opposition from some marijuana growers, but predicted the 4-mile buffer will be dropped or reduced. “I’m very confident our legislators want to see (hemp) move forward,” she said.
Efforts to obtain comment from the Washington CannaBusiness Association, a trade group, were unsuccessful.
Beckerman was a leading advocate for allowing hemp to be grown in Washington. She has since moved to New York, but remains in contact with Northwest hemp organizations.
She predicted the Farm Bill will lead to massive growth for hemp and hopes Washington can be part of that.
“They need to start over,” she advised. “I would make the simplest plan you could make.”