Cannabis could be boost for state farmers

jojacobs@tidewaterreview.com

Cannabis may have a future on Virginia’s farms, though navigating its legal status and crafting regulations are hurdles before the plant can provide any economic boost.

That was the message marijuana industry officials had for a full house of farmers and other attendees at the Williamsburg Lodge during the Virginia Farm Bureau’s annual convention, which was held Nov. 28-30 in Williamsburg.

Though illegal in Virginia, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. Some local General Assembly members have also publicly said they are considering taking a softer stance on decriminalizing marijuana for certain uses.

Marijuana has a variety of potentially profitable uses, such as pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, said Kristi Kelly, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group. The organization is Colorado’s largest trade association for licensed cannabis businesses.

Medical and recreation marijuana generated $193.6 million in tax revenue for Colorado in 2016, up from $130.4 million the previous year, according to the state’s department of revenue.

But there are a number of hurdles to cannabis growth, namely its federal status and consumer safety, Kelly said during a discussion focused more on creating a cannabis industry than the nitty-gritty of growing the plant.

A tightly regulated marijuana industry model would likely have the most success in Virginia. Laws would have to promote patient privacy, and also consider public health and safety. Standards for growing, processing and dispensing the plant are required, Kelly said.

Legislating cannabis

But in Virginia, there is budding interest in marijuana. At least 92 percent of Virginians support use of marijuana if prescribed by a doctor, according to a Quinnipiac survey done in April, Kelly said.

State Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said at a Virginia Crime Commission meeting in October that he would be willing to file legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session to “take steps toward decriminalizing” the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The senator’s spokesman said at the time that the bill’s language would be reviewed by the Virginia Crime Commission staff before it is submitted, and it should not be considered a step toward legalization if the bill passes at all.

Del. Brenda Pogge, R-Norge, has said she supports medical marijuana and deregulating the state’s hemp industry, which can lead to using its oil for medicinal purposes and treatment of opioid addiction.

During the General Assembly’s 2017 session, several marijuana-related bills became law. Both the House and Senate passed SB 1091, which revised an existing provision that an adult loses his driver’s license for six months for a conviction or deferred disposition for a drug offense to exclude a deferred disposition of simple marijuana possession.

Both chambers also passed SB 1027, which allows a pharmaceutical processor to manufacture and provide THC-A oil and cannabidiol oil as a treatment for intractable epilepsy.

Both bills were signed by the governor and took effect as laws in July.

As a crop

Marijuana can be grown in several ways, including in a greenhouse or outdoors. The former method tends to have higher costs but also higher quality and consistency. The latter, less expensive method usually has a lower yield at a lower quality. The crop can be processed to create extracts, edibles and topical products, Kelly said.

The Williamsburg conference was included in the convention as a way to gauge interest in cannabis cultivation among Virginia farmers. If farmers voice enough interest, the Farm Bureau may advocate for legislation to ease cannabis rules in the future, Virginia Farm Bureau Vice President of Communications Greg Hicks said.

Marijuana’s cousin, hemp, could also be a future crop for Virginia farmers, said assistant secretary of Virginia agriculture and forestry Lindsay Reames during the conference.

Though a controlled substance in Virginia, hemp can find use as a food, fuel, textile, or paper product. Hemp has low-to-moderate water needs and is a high-yield crop, Reames said.

At least 26 states have legal hemp research and pilot programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Virginia is one of them.

An industrial hemp research program kicked in 2015 in Virginia. About 80 acres have been planted on farms in 12 counties so several universities, such as the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, can study best cultivation practices and marketability for the crop, a process that’s ongoing. Only growers with a license who are participating in research can grow hemp in Virginia, Reames said.

In Congress, there’s hope for industrial hemp in HR 3530, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which would exclude industrial hemp from the marijuana definition in the Controlled Substances Act. As of September, it sits in the subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security and investigations, Reames said.

“There are a lot of potential opportunities there,” Reames said.

Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.

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