Bills would regulate hemp industry

Federal legalization for hemp has created a quandary for police as authorities lack the technology to distinguish marijuana from agricultural hemp at a roadside stop.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s slow move into hemp has reached another crossroads. Bills in the Washington Senate and House seek to capitalize on the federal decriminalization of hemp, but as introduced differ on details.

Key issues include license fees, competition with marijuana and CBD oil, a market now closed to hemp farmers in Washington.

To plant this year, farmers will need confidence about what the rules will be when they harvest, said Industrial Hemp Association of Washington lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson, who supports the House bill.

“From discussions I’ve had, there’s going to be thousands of acres grown this year if everything is in place,” she said. “But I’m not giving any guarantees whatsoever.”

The Farm Bill passed in December took hemp plants and viable hemp seeds off the federal list of controlled substances. Washington’s small number of hemp farmers and processors, however, are still operating under state Department of Agriculture rules written when federal law made no distinction between hemp and marijuana.

The state rules impose thousands of dollars in fees, prohibit growing hemp within 4 miles of marijuana and bans the production of CBD oil, sold as a health supplement and one of the more lucrative hemp products for producers.

Washington has lagged far behind other states, including Oregon, in cultivating and processing hemp. Last year, the Colville Tribe in northeast Washington was the only state-licensed hemp grower.

The low number of hemp farmers and processors will make licensing and inspecting hemp operations impossible without a sharp increase in fees or taxpayer support, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

House Bill 1401 proposes a $300,000 subsidy to keep the hemp program going for two more years.

Senate Bill 5276 would charge growers an acreage fee: $10 for 1 acre, $20 for 1 to 5 acres, $150 for 5 to 25 acres; and $7 for every additional acre.

Under current agriculture department regulations, hemp can’t be grown within 4 miles of marijuana. Hemp farmers must yield even if they were there first.

HB 1401 would give the farmer who was there first the right to stay. It directs the agriculture department and State Liquor and Cannabis Board to review the 4-mile buffer and consider changing it, but does not order its elimination.

SB 5276 does not directly address the buffer, but would repeal the law that gave the agriculture department authority to write the rule.

Hemp advocate Stephen Rowland of Lynwood, a Seattle suburb, said he is interested in processing hemp for building materials, but the buffer has prevented cultivation in the region.

“All of Western Washington has been made off-limits because of the four-mile buffer,” he said. “We just want the rules the federal government has on the books.”

The Senate bill leaves in place the prohibition on manufacturing CBD oil from hemp grown in Washington. The House bill would allow it.

The House bill would require farmers to plant hemp varieties approved by the agriculture department. Under the Senate bill, farmers would report the type of seeds they planted solely for record-keeping purposes.

Under any legislation, hemp will not be treated like any other crop. Plants will continue to be subject to testing to ensure they remain low in THC, the intoxicating chemical in marijuana.

The Senate bill is shorter and simpler. The House bill would set up a legislative task force to study making crop insurance available to hemp farmers. It’s a sign hemp may be poised to move into the Olympia mainstream.

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