Idaho Industrial hemp gets long-awaited push from legislature

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A proposal to create a plan for regulating industrial hemp in Idaho will move to the full Senate floor for a vote after farmers turned out in support at a legislative committee meeting Feb. 20. 

Senate Bill 1345, by Sen. Abby Lee (R-Fruitland) and co-sponsored by Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy (R-Genesee), would lay the groundwork for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture to develop a state plan for regulating industrial hemp, a close relative of marijuana that does not produce a high and has multiple uses as an agricultural commodity, including food products and fiber.

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp production at the federal level, but it left regulation of that production up to each state. Idaho is one of only a handful of states remaining with no hemp plan, and current state law doesn’t distinguish between marijuana and hemp—so possession and transportation of hemp plants can be prosecuted like marijuana.

Efforts to bring Idaho up to speed with federal regulations have failed in the legislature three separate times during the last few years, and the state’s strict marijuana laws have put it at odds with its hemp-friendly neighbors.

Lee told the Senate Agricultural Affairs committee she wanted to codify a clear distinction between the two plants, which she described as similar but different crops with different considerations.

“Hemp is not marijuana,” Lee said. “They’re like spearmint and peppermint. There should be a clear distinction there.”

The bill would make it legal under Idaho law to start cultivating hemp, but ISDA would need to develop a plan for regulating production and have it approved by USDA first. That plan would include a process for permitting growers and transporters, which Lee said she doesn’t want to be any more stringent than the existing federal guidelines.

Lee’s proposal would also set in stone the ability for hemp to be transported in Idaho. Governor Brad Little signed an executive order in November allowing transportation of industrial hemp through Idaho with a special permit after controversy when a trucker carrying 6,700 pounds of hemp was arrested on marijuana charges and the product seized in January 2019. However, Little’s order still allowed law enforcement to presume any product is marijuana in the absence of a permit.

The bill provides that law enforcement should test the product being transported without a permit first to determine if it’s hemp or marijuana, which Lee said has become significantly easier for police in recent months with the addition of more testing equipment at Idaho State Police stations across the state. Previously, samples of suspected marijuana had to be sent to Kentucky for testing, Lee said, and truckers without permits may be detained for weeks while waiting for results.

Lee noted that the bill would preserve law enforcement’s right to search vehicles if they have reason to believe a crime has occurred. But if a test proves the product is hemp, not marijuana, the carrier would be subject to a small fine and misdemeanor charge instead of being charged under marijuana statutes.

Lee emphasized that Idaho’s hemp management plan would be unique among other states because it would offer potential growers and producers a seat at the table alongside state agencies.

Once the process of designing the plan begins, ISDA would include input from any interested stakeholders through a negotiated rulemaking process. That process is already in place for any agency rulemaking where stakeholders show interest and typically happens during summer, between legislative sessions.

Most of the public testimony on the proposal came from farmers and representatives from agricultural organizations, who largely praised the bill and said it would open a door to great opportunities for Idaho agriculture.

Tim Cornie, an organic farmer from Buhl, told the committee about a road trip he took through Canada last year to see for himself what farmers were getting out of legal hemp there. He said hemp farmers were spending about the same amount of money as they would to grow corn and yielding about 3,000 pounds of hemp per acre, though market price varied between hemp products like seeds and oil.

Very little specialized equipment was required, Cornie said—the crop could be thrashed with combines, though it was “ropier” than wheat or corn—and growing hemp could be beneficial to farmland itself as a soil amendment.

Cornie touted the many uses of hemp products already being explored in Canada, including fiber for textiles, seeds and oil for food and health products, and building materials made from biomass, what’s left after processing.

He said he felt the introduction of hemp into Idaho’s agricultural portfolio might provide an alternative to heavy reliance on other oilseeds and encourage more young Idahoans to stay in the farming business.

“Idaho farmers are hurting enough,” Cornie said. “I think once we get the fear out of it [hemp] will absolutely be an asset, not a liability, for Idaho farmers. A year from now you’ll drive by a hemp field and think nothing of it.”

Braden Jensen, deputy director of governmental affairs for the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization had been in favor of industrial hemp legalization for more than two decades and was excited to offer their members the choice to cultivate hemp, if they felt it would benefit their operations.

The sole testimony against the measure came from Lindsay Atkinson, a policy analyst for the libertarian Idaho Freedom Foundation. Atkinson said the group was concerned with what they felt was a broad delegation of authority.

The committee voted to send Lee’s bill to the Senate floor for a vote with a “do-pass” recommendation. Sen. Regina Bayer (R-Meridian) was the only vote against the measure.

If the full Senate approves the measure, it would then move to the House for another hearing and vote, where more vigorous debate on the bill’s merits is possible.

Lee said she didn’t expect the bill to get through the legislature in time for growers to take advantage of this year’s growing season but hoped regulations would be in place by the 2021 season.

She acknowledged that the bill didn’t meet every single expectation or hope from stakeholders or legislators but felt getting work started on a state plan would be a good first step. Opportunities to perfect the regulations would come later, Lee said.

“Maybe this isn’t the touchdown everyone wanted, but I think if you’re for hemp this is a great first down,” Lee said.

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