7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent
In Colonial Virginia, hemp was such an important fiber crop that farmers were required to grow it. But since hemp and marijuana come from the same species of plant — Cannabis sativa — hemp became a casualty of the War on Drugs. Listed under the Controlled Substances Act, it has been practically impossible to grow hemp legally anywhere in the United States for the past several decades.
Delegate Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg, wants to change that with the Virginia Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which he prefiled this month for consideration when the General Assembly convenes in early 2015. Yost’s bill would legalize commercial production of “industrial hemp,” the variety of C. sativa that is grown for food and fiber and has no more than trace levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.
The U.S. is the only major country in the world that doesn’t allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, which can be put to a wide variety of uses including food, fiber and even biodiesel. In 2011, hemp imports to the U.S. totaled around $11.5 million, while the Hemp Industries Association estimates the 2012 retail value of hemp products sold in the country at $500 million.
Yost hopes his bill will undo what he calls an “outrageous” policy that deprives farmers of the opportunity to grow a potentially valuable crop. He and other hemp advocates point out that because industrial hemp contains practically no THC, it can’t be abused as a drug. Fields of industrial hemp also can’t be used to hide marijuana crops, advocates say, because of different production and harvest schedules, and because cross-pollination from hemp plants would reduce the potency and value of marijuana growing in the vicinity.
“The biggest thing that we have moving forward is getting folks to understand that this is not legalizing marijuana,” said Yost, who has already met to discuss the bill with representatives from the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Sheriffs Association.
Neither group, Yost said, raised any objections. He also said that early reaction from his colleagues and others has been largely positive, and that the bill already has a dozen co-sponsors in the House of Delegates.
Even if his bill becomes law, farmers in Virginia would have to wait for federal lawmakers to amend the Controlled Substances Act before the crop could be legally grown for commercial purposes. While several bills to legalize commercial production of industrial hemp are pending in Congress, hemp advocates don’t expect one to pass before 2015. Yost said his bill, if it becomes law, will put Virginian farmers in position to begin growing hemp commercially as soon as federal law allows for that to happen.
Federal policy on industrial hemp has begun to change, with the 2013 Farm Bill authorizing hemp research projects in states that have already legalized industrial hemp cultivation. To date, 17 states have done so, including three that border Virginia: West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Lindsay Reames, assistant director of governmental relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau, said the organization is “very open to exploring any new market opportunities and any new research that can be done to allow our farmers to grow another type of crop.”
Reames couldn’t comment specifically on Yost’s bill because she hadn’t seen it prior to speaking with Lancaster Farming.
“I just hate the thought that we have to import crops that we can grow in this country,” said Dan Bran, a farmer from Christiansburg, Va., who lives in Yost’s district and is interested in growing hemp if it becomes legal. “It sounds like it is a plant that produces a top-quality fiber. It may fit very well on some of the soils and the climate around here.”
As currently written, the Virginia Industrial Hemp Farming Act would create a licensure system for farmers who want to grow industrial hemp. To receive a license, growers would have to pass a background check and consent to potential site inspections by the Virginia State Police. A program of random testing would also be established to ensure that THC levels remain below those allowed under federal law.
While Yost said he feels good about the bill’s chances and that people have been generally enthusiastic about it — particularly once they understand the differences between hemp and marijuana — he is also cautious.
“One of the things I learned early on in Richmond is nothing’s ever certain,” he said.