Washington Hemp Industry Gets Lifeline

Photo Credit: Richard A. Howard

Legal hemp in Washington apparently will survive for a second season, though the state Department of Agriculture has yet to resume issuing licenses to growers and last year’s biggest hemp planter warns against cultivating more acres than the market can handle.

Legislators tucked $100,000 to market hemp and license farmers and processors into a new state budget passed March 8. The amount is less than half the $287,000 department requested, but ensures Washington remains among the states trying to build a hemp industry.

The department is discussing exactly what it can do with the money and has not set a timetable for issuing and renewing licenses, an agency spokesman said Tuesday.

The state’s hemp program, a necessity to stay within federal law, has been on hold since late last year. The agriculture department said it couldn’t continue overseeing hemp unless lawmakers appropriated funds to augment license fees.

When legislators approved hemp, they gave the department money to write regulations, but expected fees to sustain the program. Fees have been far short of meeting the department’s costs.

Bonnie Jo Peterson, founder of the Industrial Hemp Association of Washington, said that she found lawmakers still backed hemp.

“Across the board, the reception was positive,” she said. “On both sides of the aisle and both sides of the mountains, there is support of hemp.”

Peterson said that she does expect a flood of new hemp farmers this year.

“People are still waiting to see what the fees will be and what the program is going to look like,” she said. “I think next season (2019) there will be a lot of activity.”

Cory Sharp, who cultivated about half the 180 acres of hemp grown in Washington last year, said Tuesday that he will forgo planting this year. He said his company, HempLogic, was too busy developing a mobile hemp processor in partnership with a Colorado equipment maker. He said he has plans to take the decorticator to about 20 states.

Meanwhile, he’s still sitting on last year’s hemp grown in Moses Lake. He cautioned farmers to not plant too many acres.

“The processing has just not caught up with the growing,” he said. “If you do 5 acres and you lose the whole thing, you’re still a hemp farmer, but you didn’t lose the whole farm.”

He said the department’s suspension of the hemp program over the winter may have been a blessing in disguise.

“Maybe in a weird way, Washington, by throwing cold water on it, saved people from making big mistakes,” Sharp said.

Peterson said she hopes she doesn’t have to continuously lobby lawmakers for one-time appropriations to keep hemp alive. “I’m prepared to lobby for hemp for several years, but not for the exact same thing I just did,” she said.

Peterson suggested the department scale back regulations to lower its oversight costs. License fees could be raised, while keeping them under Oregon’s fees, she said.

A license to grow hemp in Washington costs $750, including an application fee. Oregon has a grower registration fee of $1,300.

Peterson also said Washington could make hemp more attractive by allowing the production of cannabinoid, commonly known as CBD, an oil marketed as a nutritional supplement. CBD is widely available, though the Drug Enforcement Administration maintains it is illegal.

The department issued seven one-year licenses to grow or process hemp before suspending the program. Two licenses went to Washington State University researchers and two went to tribes. The department reported collecting $8,139 from license holders, while spending $146,000 on oversight.