Legislation Would Help West Virginia’s Hemp Industry

Photo Credit: West Virginia Farmers Cooperative

Legislation moving through the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates would, if passed, aid farmers producing industrial hemp.

One of these is Senate Bill 475, the Industrial Hemp Development Act, which would authorize the West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture to create and administer an industrial hemp seed certification program – one that’s consistent with federal law. According to the bill, the commissioner also would be authorized to obtain and develop seed varieties for industrial hemp production; impose a fee; and propose legislative rules.

“I think it’s a worthy bill, and it’s going to go places,” said Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, the bill’s lead sponsor. “I think there’s a very good chance of it passing and becoming law.”

Woelfel said under the current set-up, West Virginia’s hemp farmers purchase their seeds from countries such as Bulgaria, but once they arrive, they only have a germination rate of about 2 percent. However, the senator said the state’s climate and soil are both conducive to developing a native hemp seed line.

Although the three sponsors are all Democrats, Woelfel said he anticipates bipartisan support, especially after working with West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, a Republican, who was receptive to the idea.

Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said his district is a largely agricultural one, and several businesses want to enter this industry if the bill passes. He explained that as industrial hemp, the plants have insufficient levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to be used in recreation.

SB 475 was read on the floor for the first time Friday and advanced to a second reading, scheduled for Monday.

Morgan Leach is the CEO of the West Virginia Farmers Cooperative, which has been working on a hemp program since policy surrounding it was being formulated in 2015.

“The seed bill is a pretty big deal for us this year,” he said. “The way farmers bring in seed right now is incredibly cumbersome, and this is still evolving law on the federal and state levels, and so the way we’re required to purchase seed is off the international market.”

Leach said this lengthy process entails finding seed varieties that will do well in West Virginia and acquiring import permits from the Drug Enforcement Administration to bring them into the country, along with fees for shipping and the permits.

He said if SB 475 becomes law, it will allow the state department of agriculture to work with the seed certifying body, the West Virginia Associated Crop Growers, to inspect crops and develop standards to certify hemp seeds to sell to farmers.

“This is pretty big because there are some perceived restrictions in the law,” Leach explained. “The DEA is interpreting that viable seed is restricted from interstate commerce. That’s kind of the pressure to buy internationally.”

He noted that an upcoming amicus brief in the 9th Circuit Court will dispose of the issue if seeds can be shipped between states. This, he said, means West Virginia hemp seeds will be ready to breed and go to market in-state and potentially export to Pennsylvania (who’s hemp program recently came online), along with North Carolina and Tennessee.

“Everyone around us is starting to take on to this crop, and we would actually be the third state in the United States with a seed breeding program,” Leach said. “One is Kentucky, two is Colorado. It’s a whole industry unto itself. Regardless of what farmers are doing with their crops, having the ability to bring the seed and genetics to West Virginia is another big opportunity for economic development in the agricultural space.”

Leach said industrial hemp has a variety of uses from its seed, flowers and fiber.

The seeds, he said, are consumed as food, being rich in protein, omegas, nutrients and essential fatty acids. Oil from the seed can be made into soap and other beauty/cosmetic products.

Cannabidiol, a substance extracted from the flower, has medicinal properties that is an emerging field. It hasn’t yet been certified by the Food and Drug Administration, Leach said, but it is being used to treat epilepsy, pain and inflammation. He emphasized these plants, as industrial hemp, have less than 0.3 percent of THC, making them unusable for getting high, but they still have medicinal qualities.

The hemp fibers can be used for making plastics via a form of bio-composites. Leach said some European auto manufacturers are using hemp fiber as stuffing in vehicle seats.

”We’re in a great position to manufacture a lot of this stuff,” Leach said.