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 lawmakers and the state Department of Agriculture are taking down barriers to growing hemp in time for spring planting, though how much farmers will pay in the future for the privilege has not yet been decided.

The House Appropriations Committee unanimously endorsed a bill Feb. 26 that lifts a ban on moving harvested hemp across state lines. The bill also would allow hemp to be grown for CBD, an oil extract marketed for a wide range of ailments.

Meanwhile, the agriculture department plans to abolish two rules by April 23. One rule prohibits hemp from being grown within 4 miles of marijuana. The other rule requires farmers to get permission from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to import hemp seeds. The House bill agrees with those steps.

“It makes sense to assist farmers to get seeds in the ground this season,” agriculture department spokesman Hector Castro said.

The legislation and department rule changes would bring Washington’s hemp regulations in line with the 2018 Farm Bill. Currently, the state’s hemp program sticks to the more-restrictive 2014 Farm Bill.

Other states didn’t wait for Congress to liberalize the rules and have a head start in developing hemp as a commercial crop. Washington’s entire 2018 hemp harvest was 141 acres grown by the Confederated Colville tribes in northeast Washington.

“We’re definitely moving things through. I’m excited about it. It’s not a done deal yet,” Industrial Hemp Association of Washington lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson said Wednesday.

While policies are on a path to be changed, it’s uncertain how much farmers will pay for a hemp license under the new program. It could be more than under the current program, even though there are fewer rules to enforce.

Even under the new Farm Bill, states must still license hemp growers, screen out drug felons, test plants for THC, inspect fields and report regularly to the USDA.

In an analysis of House Bill 1401, the agriculture department estimated running a hemp program under the new federal regulations will cost $206,300 a year.

Before approving HB 1401, the Appropriations Committee removed a provision allocating $300,000 over two years in general taxes to support hemp oversight. It was a procedural matter.

“We don’t generally do appropriations inside bills. They’re budget decisions,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

Peterson said she is confident lawmakers will continue to subsidize the hemp program until more farmers sign up to share the costs. How much legislators appropriate won’t be known until they adopt a new budget, probably in late April.

A one-year license to grow hemp now costs $300. So far, the state has six licensed hemp farmers eligible to plant this spring — which works out to more than $34,000 per grower to support the program, according to the department’s analysis.

Waiting to see what lawmakers do, the department has put on hold raising fees.

Hemp license holder Diane Zimberoff of Paradise Wellness Farms in Graham, Wash., said Wednesday she plans to buy hemp seeds from a Colorado supplier and plant 5 acres for CBD, providing the state changes the rules. “We’ve got it all lined up,” she said.

The farm’s license expires in mid-July. If there is a big jump in the license fee, it will be another barrier, she said. “Everything is in place except for the state.”

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