Washington lawmakers give hemp room to grow

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Nearly identical hemp bills have passed the Senate and House, giving Washington farmers the chance to catch up with growers in some other states.

The Senate voted 49-0 on Tuesday to lift restrictions on where hemp can be grown, where seeds can be obtained and how harvested plants can be used. The House last week embraced the same policies in a 95-0 vote.

“I’m excited. I’m still letting it sink in,” said lobbyist Bonny Jo Peterson of the Industrial Hemp Association of Washington. “I’ve been confident, but I’m still amazed it’s going the way it’s going.”

Washington has kept a relatively tight rein on hemp as other states such as Oregon moved ahead with cultivating and processing what had been until recently a federally controlled substance. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp plants and viable seeds, rendering Washington’s hemp regulations outdated.

The Farm Bill, however, still requires states to oversee and license hemp production. The bills passed by the House and Senate will eliminate the state’s old hemp program based on the 2014 Farm Bill and will introduce one modeled after the new Farm Bill.

There are minor differences in Senate Bill 5276 and House Bill 1401 that must be worked out before the legislation can be sent to Gov. Jay Inslee to sign.

Both bills direct the state Department of Agriculture to adopt the new hemp rules as soon as the legislation takes effect. Without the provision, department rule-writing could delay hemp planting for another season.

“We would like to start this production as soon as the snow goes away,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.

The bills do not resolve how the hemp program will be funded. The department proposed raising a one-year license to grow hemp to $7,500 from $300 to make the program self-supporting. The department has put the proposal on hold to see whether lawmakers will continue to subsidize oversight.

That decision won’t be final until lawmakers pass a budget, presumably late next month.

“I’m confident we’ll secure funding,” Peterson said.

Washington’s entire 141-acre hemp crop for 2018 was grown by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in northeast Washington. In Oregon, 11,000 acres of hemp were grown last year. As of Wednesday, Washington had issued six grower licenses.

Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima, said Central Washington has the potential to excel in hemp, like it does in apples.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be the number one producer of hemp as well,” he said.

The bills passed by the House and Senate would allow hemp to be grown within 4 miles of marijuana, a restriction imposed by the agriculture department that put much of marijuana-embracing Washington off-limits to hemp.

The bills also would allow licensed farmers to obtain hemp seeds from other states and without first getting government permission. Washington farmers would no longer be prohibited from growing hemp for CBD oil, the plant’s most popular product.

Harvested hemp still will need to be tested for THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

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