More lenient hemp laws could play new role in Virginia agriculture

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There are various ways advocates pitch growing hemp as a crop, but at one point there is almost always this familiar refrain: “It’s not marijuana. You can’t get high off of it.”

Hemp’s association with its plant cousin has demonized the crop for many years. But attitudes about hemp are changing. And Susan Cromer is looking forward to it.

Cromer, a hemp advocate who lives in Roanoke, owns LilyHemp Boutique and Gourmet, an online shop featuring hemp-infused products. The site provides information about hemp and sells products made with hemp extracts, such as relief cream for irritated skin, sprays to calm nervous pets and bath bombs. The hemp comes from Botetourt County resident Debbie Custer, who has a few plants in a hydroponic garden. Custer, who is also a hemp enthusiast, has created proprietary hemp extracts formulated for each product.

This business is now possible in Virginia for the first time in many, many years because of a change in state law: On July 1, the licensing process to grow industrial hemp was opened to everyone in Virginia.

Growing hemp was outlawed in the U.S. in 1970 along with all forms of cannabis. It was made illegal in Virginia even before that. But four years ago, federal law was changed to allow universities to grow hemp for research. Virginia passed its own law legalizing hemp cultivation for research purposes in 2015. In September, there were 85 licensed hemp growers in Virginia through state universities, according to Erin Williams, who works with hemp registration at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The program was successful enough that the existing law was expanded, opening the registration process up to people without university ties.

There are still a lot of restrictions on exactly what can be grown and to whom it can be sold. Growers and processors who are granted approval under the new law are still classified as part of a state research project, and registered participants must describe research plans and must report results at the end of the growing season. Williams said 50 people were registered growers for this new program as of Tuesday, and there has been steady interest in the program. Custer was one of the first people in Virginia who was granted this type of license.

She became a fan of hemp after she discovered that a hemp-infused spray eased the pain of one of her beloved pet dogs during a trip to Europe several years ago. She has a few plants already growing, but would like to expand to a greenhouse and a larger facility. Custer and Cromer’s biggest effort right now is educating people about hemp and what it can do.

What is hemp?

Hemp is a variety of cannabis sativa just like marijuana. But industrial hemp is classified as a plant with 0.3 percent or less tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive property in marijuana that gets people high. With such a low level, getting high off hemp is impossible, and the plant can still be used for a variety of products, from food and creams and nutritional supplements to items like car parts, ropes, clothes and construction materials.

Cromer is a big believer in the positive health effects of hemp and is forming a nonprofit called Women In Hemp to support women who want to advance in the emerging hemp industry. She wants LilyHemp to grow into a manufacturing facility and believes it will appeal to women, who are often more conscious of how they are treating their bodies. Cromer likes to educate people on hemp and visits local networking organizations to tout hemp’s health benefits and discuss how it is different from marijuana. The first time she wrote a Facebook post promoting the hemp industry, she was afraid her friends would think she was crazy, she said.

“I thought I would get people wailing on me for being involved in drugs or something,” she said. But now she is a full-on advocate and will preach the plant’s positives to anyone. “Let me talk to someone really against it. ... I can educate them that we have been misled about this plant.”

It’s hard to prove many of the purported effects of hemp because the plant’s growth has been illegal for so long in the U.S. This could change soon, though.

A provision in the new Farm Bill could allow hemp to be cultivated, processed and sold legally in the U.S. The provision has bipartisan support, including backing from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and representatives from other areas that have been hurt by tobacco farming losses. Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, have also supported allowing industrial hemp farming, as have Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. The previous Farm Bill expired Sept. 30 without a new bill in place, but negotiations continue and many expect that new legislation will pass before the end of the year and it will include hemp legalization. This could also help clear up some of the gray areas into which individual state hemp laws often fall, such as moving some parts of the plant across state lines.

Many hemp advocates believe these recent law changes are only the beginning — especially in Virginia, where the laws are more restrictive than in some neighboring states, such as Kentucky.

“We need to treat this plant with the respect it deserves,” said Jason Amatucci, executive director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.

Amatucci said the latest Virginia law change is a step in the right direction, but the process to grow hemp is still far too restrictive. Many of the most lucrative parts of hemp cannot be sold to to the general public under the current law. Licensed growers are still forbidden to sell the flowers, leaves or seeds to non-registered members of the public. He said the economic development benefits of growing hemp could have a huge impact on Virginia, which has a lot of farmland.

“It’s a multi-billion global industry that our government has kept from us,” Amatucci said.

John Fike, an associate professor at Virginia Tech who oversees the university’s hemp research, also said economic positives could come from growing hemp in Virginia. At Tech, researchers are observing how well varieties could be grown as a crop in different areas of the state, as well as the potential commercial value. Hemp could be grown in Virginia for three product areas: feed, fiber and flowers. He said many Virginia farms already have the infrastructure for fiber production, but the state lacks processors and markets for the crop.

With the recent law change, more people will be likely interested in growing a few flowers and launching small operations — such as the current one with LilyHemp — but market uncertainty and other challenges could make large-scale industrial hemp farming slow to take off, Fike said. It is still a crop, and it is important for farmers to grow it with a plan, he said. And since the crop hasn’t been legal before, it is hard to guarantee any profit yet.

However, Fike said demand for the crop is expected to grow, especially if the new federal law passes. More people, he said, will likely begin to grow it in the next few years and more knowledge will be gained, which could likely lead to more demand. Many of the people who have reached out to Fike about growing hemp are people who used it for ailments and were helped so much that they wanted to grow it themselves, just as with Custer and Cromer.

“It’s been very interesting to see people’s expression of interest in this and how it has been beneficial to them,” he said.

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