JUNEAU, Alaska (Feb. 20, 2018) – Yesterday, the Alaska House passed a bill to legalize industrial hemp and create a licensing program for its cultivation in the state, taking the first step toward nullifying federal prohibition on the plant in practice.
Sen. Shelly Hughes (R) filed Senate Bill 6 (SB6) last year and it carried over into the 2018 legislative session. The legislation would remove industrial hemp from the state’s list of controlled substances. The proposed law would also define Industrial hemp is an agricultural crop and direct the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to set up a licensing and regulation program for hemp cultivation.
Additionally, SB6 provides that cannabidiol oil is not included in the definition of ‘hashish oil’ and clarifies that adding industrial hemp to food does not create an adulterated food product. This would enable retailers to sell CBD and hemp food products without fear of state prosecution.
While SB6 could theoretically legalize the cultivation of hemp for research or commerce, how the program functions in practice would depend in large part on how the Department of Natural Resources ultimately writes the licensing guidelines.
On Feb. 9, the House Finance Committee approved an amended version of SB6 31-0. It previously passed the Senate 20-0.
FEDERAL FARM BILL
In 2014, Congress cracked the door open for hemp in the U.S. with an amendment to the 2014 Farm Bill. The law allows hemp cultivation for research purposes, but prohibits “commercial” production.
The “hemp amendment” in the 2014 farm bill —
…allows State Agriculture Departments, colleges and universities to grow hemp, defined as the non-drug oil-seed and fiber varieties of Cannabis, for academic or agricultural research purposes, but it applies only to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Drug Enforcement Agency released a “statement of principles” to guide interpretation of the hemp section in the Farm Bill. It states, “The growth and cultivation of industrial hemp may only take place in accordance with an agricultural pilot program to study the growth, cultivation, or marketing of industrial hemp established by a State department of agriculture or State agency responsible for agriculture in a State where the production of industrial hemp is otherwise legal under State law.”
In short, the current federal law authorizes farming of hemp – by research institutions, or within state pilot programs – for research only. Farming for commercial purposes by individuals and businesses remains prohibited.
The definition of “commercial” and the extent to which sales and marketing are allowed under the rubric of “research” remains murky. This has created significant confusion.
The statement of principles also asserted that industrial hemp programs are limited to fiber and seed. It didn’t mention the CBD oil or other edible hemp products.The DEA has apparently interpreted that to mean they remain illegal.
Passage of SB6 would open the door for Alaska farmers to ignore federal prohibition and grow hemp commercially anyway. While prospective hemp growers would still have to take federal law into consideration, by eliminating the state requirement for federal permission the law potentially clears away a major obstacle to widespread commercial hemp farming within Alaska’s borders. All of this would depend on whether or not the Department of Natural Resources wrote the rules in an effort to remain federally compliant or not.
Several other states with federally-compliant hemp programs, such as Kentucky, North Dakota, Minnesota and New York, have grown significant acreage under federally-approved research programs. This takes the first step, but with federal shackles in place, these states are not legally allowed to develop any kind of commercial market. Ironically, many of these “federally compliant” programs are not actually federally compliant.
Recognizing its limited research program was hindering the development of the industry, West Virginia dumped its federally compliant hemp program during the 2017 legislative session and will now issue federally non-compliant commercial licenses to growers. West Virginia Public Broadcasting confirmed limits imposed by the old program due to its conformity with federal law were holding back the development of a viable hemp industry and everyday farmers cannot benefit.
“But because of the strict requirements under the 2014 bill, growers are not able to sell their plants and cannot transport them across state lines to be turned into those usable products. That’s limited the ability to create a real hemp industry in the state.”
Other states, including Colorado, Oregon, Maine, California and Vermont have simply ignored federal prohibition and legalized industrial hemp production within their state borders.
Colorado was the first state with widespread commercial hemp production. Farmers began growing hemp in southeast Colorado back in 2013 and the industry is beginning to mature. The amount of acreage used to grow industrial hemp in the state doubled in 2016 to nearly 5,000 acres, and nearly doubled again in 2017.
The Oregon legislature initially legalized industrial hemp production in 2009. While it was technically legal to grow hemp in the state, farmers didn’t take advantage of the opportunity for nearly five years. When the Oregon Department of Agriculture finally put a licensing and regulatory program in place early in 2014, farmers began growing hemp. The initial regulatory structure placed significant limits on hemp farming and effectively locked small growers out of the market. In 2016, Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 4060 into law. It relaxed state laws regulating hemp already on the books and made the crop more like other agricultural products. Within months, the Oregon Department of Agriculture had already promulgated new rules under the reformed law. According to Oregon’s Cannabis Connection, the rules set the stage to creates a “massive” medical hemp market. The state produced 3,469 acres of hemp in 2017.
Both Colorado and Oregon demonstrate how loosening rules at the state level encourage the market and allow hemp a legitimate commercial hemp industry to develop.
HUGE MARKET FOR HEMP
According to a 2005 Congressional Research Service report, the U.S. is the only developed nation that hasn’t developed an industrial hemp crop for economic purposes.
Experts suggest that the U.S. market for hemp is around $600 million per year. They count as many as 25,000 uses for industrial hemp, including food, cosmetics, plastics and bio-fuel. The U.S. is currently the world’s #1 importer of hemp fiber for various products, with China and Canada acting as the top two exporters in the world.
During World War II, the United States military relied heavily on hemp products, which resulted in the famous campaign and government-produced film, “Hemp for Victory!”
Since the House amended SB6, it will not go back to the Senate for concurrence.