Richard A. Howard/USDA NRCS
Washington state regulators may inadvertently stymie the state’s nascent hemp industry.
As states have moved to make recreational marijuana legal under their own statues, they have also attempted in varying degrees to give cover to farmers who want to grow hemp.
Hemp, like marijuana, is a cannabis plant. Unlike its cousin, hemp contains very low amounts of THC, the chemical that produces the “high” in marijuana. Nonetheless, it is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law and lumped in with the likes of heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Hemp has been grown for fiber for centuries. It was a staple in the United States until Congress lumped it together with marijuana and made it illegal in the 1930s — some say at the behest of cotton growers.
Over the last three-quarters of a century, hemp enthusiasts abroad have found any number of useful products. Imported hemp products — oils, foodstuffs and fiber — are widely available in shops large and small across the country.
The 2014 Farm Bill allowed hemp farming and processing under state supervision. Enter the state of Washington.
Officials in Washington seemed enthusiastic about the prospects of hemp from the get-go. But to regulate the crop, the Washington Department of Agriculture needed money. Who better to pay for regulation than the growers and processors who were being regulated?
That set up a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma. With few growers willing to dodge the feds and join the vanguard of hemp production, license fees have to be high to cover the cost of the not unsubstantial regulation. With regulatory costs so high, few growers and processors want to jump in.
The Washington Legislature ponied up $100,000 to help cover costs this last season. But without a similar subsidy and just two license holders — one of which was approved too late to produce a crop this year — regulators say they need to hike fees by 2,400 percent to cover their costs for the 2019 growing season.
The proposed hike, the fee to grow hemp would jump from $300 to $7,500, as would the fee to distribute seeds. A license to both grow and process hemp would increase from $300 to $14,500.
In any case, that’s a substantial buy-in for a crop that faces some fairly substantial limitations.
Diane Zimberoff of Wellness Paradise Farm in Graham, Wash., said she started pursuing a license in February. The farm got it in mid-July and couldn’t plant a crop.
Its license expires next July, but Zimberoff said that she wasn’t sure the farm would renew the license at the higher fee. “I’d really have to think about that.”
Advocates say they think the Legislature will come through with another subsidy, making the hikes unnecessary. A better solution would be for Congress to remove hemp from the controlled substances list and negate the need for state regulation.
Hemp is a viable commercial agricultural crop, not a narcotic. It’s time to allow U.S. growers and processors to legally develop its potential.