By EMRY DINMAN
For the Basin Business Journal
MOSES LAKE — When, five days before Christmas, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill, an expansive piece of legislation that touches every inch of agriculture in the country, a lot of people were seeing green — after all, the Farm Bill helps stabilize crop insurance and guarantees for farmers facing devastating and unpredictable changes in the market.
But perhaps no one saw green more deeply than those eager to begin growing hemp, the emerald-colored crop that stole the show when the Farm Bill made it legal.
Though hemp and marijuana are varieties of the same species of plant, they are functionally very different crops and are grown for different markets. While operations growing marijuana, a crop used as a drug, are illegal under federal law, they are allowed under certain conditions within some states, Washington among them.
But despite the fact that hemp cannot be used as a recreational drug, marijuana’s strait-laced cousin has ironically been more difficult to grow in Washington due to federal and state regulations. Though five organizations are currently licensed to grow hemp, only one, the Colville Confederated Tribes, is currently still sowing the crop.
State laws regulating hemp production are tied to the 2014 Farm Bill, which allowed states to create pilot programs for industrial grower research, essentially testing the waters for market viability. All Washington hemp growers have had to apply for a research license in order to operate, though areas of research can include anything from soil studies to water use or nutritional content. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill and provisions legalizing hemp as an agricultural product, state lawmakers could remove this requirement for a research license, potentially opening up the market to a wider array of growers.
Under existing law, all currently licensed hemp growers can use the crop to produce foodstuffs like hemp oil or hemp seed, or for industrial goods such as hemp fibers for use in fabrics or even reinforced concrete. But if state lawmakers were to broaden Washington law to match new provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill, growers would also be able to commercially produce CBD oil. CBD is a cannabinoid, but unlike its well-known cousin THC, which produces the high associated with marijuana use, CBD has no known psychoactive effects. Instead, CBD is commonly used as a therapeutic alternative to common painkillers, including for cancer patients.
Local state lawmakers representing the Columbia Basin are hopeful that Washington can make headway in allowing hemp as an agricultural product to come into its own as a legitimate alternative crop.
Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, and Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, both said that hemp has potential in Washington. Warnick is the ranking member of the Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Senate Committee, and Dent is the assistant ranking member of the Agriculture and Natural Resources House Committee.
Warnick said that legislators would like to see the crop become viable in the state, but that the state needs to be cautious that certain steps are taken to ensure best practices.
“Right now we’ve got a four-mile spread between where the hemp would be and where the marijuana would be because of concerns of cross-pollination,” Warnick said.
As the same species, the hemp and marijuana can breed across great distances due to cross-pollination, which is a problem common with other seed crops, Dent said. And though hemp has been legalized federally, it only qualifies if it has a THC content of less than 0.3 percent.
Because of this, even accidental cross-breeding could be disastrous for growers. But a four-mile buffer may also be too onerous, particularly if the market is to expand throughout the state the way that the marijuana industry has. The trick will be finding a sweet spot in the middle, and that takes research.
For this and other basic regulatory reasons, broadening the legalization of hemp growers in the state would require funding the state Department of Agriculture to monitor the industry, as well as to help growers, Warnick said.
“Because it’s not just about regulation, it’s about helping (growers) to market their product too,” Warnick said.
The legislature convened for its 2019 session Jan. 14, and will run for at least 105 days.