RICHMOND – When people think of hemp, marijuana often comes to mind – because the two plants are varieties of cannabis.
But hemp has a variety of uses, from making textiles and building materials to feeding livestock. The settlers at Jamestown grew hemp. So did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In the 1940s, Henry Ford reportedly built a car body of hemp fiber and ran it on hemp oil.
In the 1950s, however, the United States banned hemp because of its association with marijuana. That prohibition has remained in effect – until now.
Licensed growers will be allowed to cultivate industrial hemp as part of a university-managed research program under House Bill 1277, introduced by Republican Del. Joseph Yost of Blacksburg, and Senate Bill 955, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg.
The new law defines industrial hemp as a species of the cannabis sativa plant with a minimal level of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. It says industrial hemp can have “a concentration of THC that is no greater than that allowed by federal law.” The state law makes it explicitly clear that industrial hemp is not marijuana.
Once the law takes effect in July, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will develop regulations for growing hemp. The industrial hemp research program will be supervised and managed by public institutions of higher education.
The law authorizes the state commissioner of agriculture and consumer to:
- “Oversee and analyze the growth of industrial hemp by licensed growers”
- “Conduct seed research on various types of industrial hemp that are best suited to be grown in Virginia”
- “Study the economic feasibility of developing an industrial hemp market in various types of industrial hemp that can be grown in the Commonwealth”
- “Report on the estimated value-added benefits, including environmental benefits, to Virginia businesses of an industrial hemp market of Virginia-grown industrial hemp varieties”
- “Promote research into the development of industrial hemp and commercial markets for Virginia industrial hemp and hemp products”
- “Study the use of industrial hemp in new energy technologies, including electricity generation, biofuels, or other forms of energy resources”
Yost represents House District 12, which includes the counties of Giles, Pulaski and Montgomery, where Virginia Tech University is located. He has been contacted by farmers interested in growing hemp.
“A gentleman in southwest Virginia always had interest in bringing this crop back to Virginia,” Yost said. “When talking to him and then looking at information out there regarding hemp and the uses for it, the ease in growing it and demand, it seemed like a no-brainer to see the potential with economic growth and development.”
His colleagues in the General Assembly agreed. HB 1277 passed the House unanimously and the Senate on a 34-3 vote. The companion bill, SB 955, passed the Senate 32-5 and the House unanimously. McAuliffe signed both bills on March 16.
The new law is a victory for the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, a grassroots organization that has been working to legalize the crop. But the legislation doesn’t go far enough, says Jason Amatucci, the coalition’s founder and director.
He said research is not needed to show why industrial hemp should be legalized.
“There is no reason it should not be legalized – not one good reason,” Amatucci said. “If you hold it up to facts, then their (opponents’) argument crumbles. The fact that hemp is so valuable and proven to be one of the most amazing natural resources we do have, it’s actually quite insane that it was illegal.”
Amatucci said industrial hemp will be good for the economy and environment. He said it can be used in textiles, fiber production, building materials and nutritional products.
Including Virginia, 22 states have authorized industrial hemp programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. They range from California and Colorado to Vermont and South Carolina. Congress opened the door for such programs in the 2014 federal farm bill.
With its new law, Virginia may be able to plant the seeds, literally and figuratively, for the new hemp industry in 2016. Yost is optimistic.
“My hope is once that happens, we can begin to look at the progress,” he said. “We know there are many uses for it, and I am sure there will be more when we do more research.”