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Industrial Hemp: A New Cash Crop for W.Va.?

WV Legislative Photography, Perry Bennett
Del. Jeff Eldridge, lead sponsor of HB 2453, talks with another delegate on the house floor.

Last week, members of the House of Delegates moved forward with a bill to expand the industrial hemp program to individual growers outside of the current research program established through WVU. Industry advocates said growing hemp could change the face of West Virginia’s economy, but the bill still faces some hurdles at the statehouse.

Industrial hemp was classified as a schedule one drug by the federal government in the 1970s, joining drugs like heroin, cocaine and its cousin marijuana as illegal for sale and distribution in the country. But before its scheduling, industrial hemp had a long history of practical use.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Jeff Eldridge (D-Lincoln) said, "It's not even a drug; it’s hemp. It’s clothing, it’s rope, it’s other products."

In 2014, the House of Delegates passed legislation allowing a limited number of people to obtain a license to grow hemp as part of a research project through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and West Virginia University. J. Morgan Leach of Parkersburg said after the bill’s passage, he decided to take part in the program.

“I saw this as a great opportunity to go out and start a new industry that would really start to take meaningful steps to diversify the economy and create incentives for young folks like myself to stay in West Virginia," said Leach.

Leach is now the president of the West Virginia Hemp Industries Association and the CEO of the West Virginia Farmer’s Cooperative. The cooperative supports and organizes local farmers as they try out industrial hemp. This year they have 15 licensed farmers growing 30 acres of hemp, and he said the goal for now is to experiment with the most efficient growing and manufacturing processes.

“There are 25,000 different products that can be developed from the industrial hemp crop, so talking about the seed for the food industry, talking about the flowers and the leaves for the nutraceutical and the topical industries, and talking about the fiber that can develop thousands of new products," said Leach. "It is a great opportunity for young entrepreneurs and innovators to take advantage of the new opportunities we are going to provide.”

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 useable products. That’s limited the ability to create a real hemp industry in the state.

Eldridge said he wants to change that.

That’s why he introduced House Bill 2453. The bill would allow the West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture to expand the number of people who can get a license to grow industrial hemp, letting individual growers get a license even if they are not taking part in the research program. Eldridge said that change would help increase the potential for West Virginia to use industrial hemp as a cash crop.

“I think West Virginia is kind of in the center; we could have the industry move here to process hemp the plant itself and extract all of the derivatives from the plant you can,” said Eldridge.

Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt said he supports the bill to expand the hemp program, and while there are no current processing plants in West Virginia, deregulating the industry could attract new investment.

Leonhardt said, “I want West Virginia to be the manufacturer and bring in the product from other states; I don’t want our product to go to other states and have them do the processing because if we can do the processing here obviously that creates more jobs for West Virginians.”

As introduced, the bill would remove hemp from the schedule one classification in the state that makes it illegal to grow and distribute. By West Virginia standards, industrial hemp is anything less than one percent THC -the chemical which causes people to get high, while the national standard is less than 0.3 percent. Regardless of the discrepancy between the state and national standard, Louis McDonald professor at WVU and one of the leaders of the program for research of industrial hemp says it’s just not possible to use hemp as a drug.

 “So there is no way that you could have any feeling after eating these,” McDonald said, “even if you smoked our entire plot which would give you emphysema before you had any enjoyable experience form that.”

Leach agreed and said it just doesn’t qualify to be considered a drug.

“It doesn’t have the psychoactive effect that THC has and it is just not deserving of being classified as a schedule one drug. It would be analogous to putting aspirin on schedule one with heroin, cocaine, and those types of drugs.”

The House Judiciary Committee amended the bill earlier last week to prevent universities from selling the industrial hemp they grow, but still allow the research programs to continue. Delegate Amy Summers is a member of the committee and just added her name to the list of bill sponsors last week. She said lawmakers don’t want universities to compete with local growers who want to sell their hemp for processing.

“[Universities] just can’t grow it as a crop or as an industry to contribute to what commercial people or private citizens might be doing,” said Summers.

Summers suggested there is little controversy over the bill in the House and as long as people understand the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana, there should be no trouble passing the bill out of the chamber.

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