No help for hemp in Washington budget proposal

Hemp is planted June 6 in Grant County, Wash., the first year cultivating the crop was legal in the state under the 2014 Farm Bill. It may be the last unless the Legislature throws the young industry a lifeline.

The budget Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will submit to the 2018 Legislature does not include money to save the state’s hemp program.

The state Department of Agriculture says it needs $287,000 to oversee hemp cultivation in 2018 and 2019. Lawmakers could still provide the infusion of cash. But as part of the Inslee administration, WSDA won’t lobby for the money.

“We understand the governor has to balance a lot of priorities. We are supportive of his budget,” WSDA spokesman Hector Castro said.

Washington last year joined about 30 states that allow the growing of hemp, a federally controlled substance. Fees on farmers and handlers are expected to pay for WSDA supervision. Department costs, however, are far exceeding the money it collects from the seven license holders.

Because of the shortfall, WSDA has suspended issuing new licenses. The current licenses begin expiring in June. The department says the budget gap is too large to simply raise fees.

Moses Lake Republican Sen. Judy Warnick, whose district had the state’s largest hemp farm last summer, said she hoped that lawmakers will appropriate the money for hemp.

Lawmakers in 2016 allocated $145,000 to start the program. Warnick noted that private money also has been invested in building a Washington hemp industry.

“I’m surprised that it wasn’t included in the governor’s budget because it’s a new crop that could have a huge impact,” Warnick said. “We’ve got farmers trying to grow it and trying to do the right thing.”

The 2014 Farm Bill authorized state-supervised hemp cultivation and processing. Washington, already risking the ire of federal officials with recreational marijuana, strove to stay within federal rules. In the process, it has fallen behind states with looser regulations.

Hemp advocate Joy Beckerman said Washington will need to relax the rules to give hemp a chance to prosper.

“We are overly regulated here in Washington state,” Beckerman said. “We need to change the rules.”

Unlike some states, including Oregon, Washington bans the production of cannabidiol or CBD. The non-intoxicating plant extract is sold as a dietary supplement. The Drug Enforcement Administration maintains that the Farm Bill did not legalize CBD.

“The prohibition on CBD extraction needs to be lifted,” Beckerman said. “That’s what is actually in demand.”

Even if lawmakers give the hemp program a reprieve, reforms are needed, she said.

“If we don’t change the law to allow for CBD extraction and remove the most burdensome and unnecessary regulations, basically it’s a non-starter,” Beckerman said. “There are too many barriers to entry.”

Farmers must buy a license to grow hemp and pay for regular inspections and testing by WSDA. Seeds can only be obtained through WSDA. The department has no plans, or funding, to rewrite the regulations.

“Like many states taking advantage of the 2014 Farm Bill, Washington is making its way into the promise of hemp and has encountered a major challenge,” Beckerman said. “It’s one we can overcome, and we need to the state Legislature to overcome it.”

A total of 175 acres of hemp were cultivated in Washington in 2017, compared to 3,469 acres in Oregon, according to the advocacy group Hemp Vote. Colorado led all states with more than 9,000 acres.

Recommended for you