Washington resumes its hemp program

A Washington farmer plants hemp June 6, 2017. The state Department of Agriculture resumed taking applications March 28 to plant hemp. The program had been suspended after running out of funds.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture has resumed processing applications to grow and process hemp, following a one-time infusion of $100,000 to get the program through a second season.

The department will hire an administer to oversee the program, an agency spokesman said Thursday. The department stopped licensing hemp farmers and processors late last year because fees collected from license holders were far short of what the department spent to regulate the state’s first hemp crop.

The hemp program will need to be self-supporting someday, though there are no plans to raise fees this spring or summer, the spokesman said.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a budget Tuesday that included the money to save hemp. The department announced the following day it was again reviewing applications.

It’s a stopgap measure, and hemp’s long-term prospects in Washington are unclear. Few farmers signed up last year, and there is no developed in-state market for the harvest. Hemp fields must be at least 4 miles from any marijuana operation to prevent cross-pollination. Washington has 1,172 licensed marijuana producers, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board’s current count.

Some 180 acres of hemp were planted in 2017, according to the agriculture department. The license holder responsible for about half of those acres has said he won’t plant this year. The state issued five other hemp-related licenses, including two to Native American tribes and two to Washington State University researchers.

Industrial Hemp Association of Washington lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson said Thursday that she does not expect the department’s resumption of the program to set off a rush to plant this spring.

“If they weren’t prepared to plant this year, they may want to wait,” she said. “I remain confident about the long-term viability of a healthy, sustainable industry if everybody is working toward that goal.”

Hemp plants and viable hemp seeds remain as illegal under federal law as marijuana. The only exception is for hemp cultivated under state supervision. The agriculture department’s costs are related to providing that oversight.

More than 30 states have set up supervised-hemp programs. Many boast a large number of producers and processors.

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at a media event in his home state March 26 that he will introduce a bill to take hemp off the federal controlled substances list. Such a proposal has been in front of Congress since at least 2005.

Peterson said federal legalization would push forward hemp in Washington by “leaps and bounds.”

Hemp seeds, plants and products could move freely across state lines, she said. “People who are leery at this point would become interested,” she said.

A one-year license to grow hemp costs $300. This does no include a nonrefundable application fee of $450. There are other fees for field inspections and for testing plants for unauthorized herbicides and the presence of the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

Washington law forbids the manufacture of cannabidiol, a potentially lucrative hemp extract known as CBD and marketed as a nutritional supplement. Although CBD is widely available, the Drug Enforcement Administration considers it illegal.

At the media event in Kentucky, McConnell stressed hemp’s usefulness as a fiber in products such as insulation.

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