Pubdate: Sun, 19 Jun 2016
Source: Yakima Herald-Republic (WA)
Copyright: 2016 Yakima Herald-Republic
Author: Mark Morey


YAKIMA, Wash. - As a cousin to marijuana, hemp has long been banned 
despite a huge potential for use in a wide range of products, 
including clothing, building materials and even shampoo.

But Yakima will soon be at the forefront of the state's efforts to 
develop a research program that could lead to a commercial hemp industry.

The state Department of Agriculture plans to hire a Yakima-based 
program specialist to help draft and adopt rules needed to create the 
program, which is expected to launch in time for the 2017 growing season.

"I think that's pretty exciting. Being able to develop a program 
doesn't come along every day," said Jason Ferrante, Agriculture's 
assistant director for commodity inspection.

Recent changes in federal law - in spite of the federal government's 
long-standing resistance to legalizing marijuana and hemp - allow 
states to develop research programs around the viability of 
commercial hemp production.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers gave the go-ahead for such a 
program to go into effect June 28, but Ferrante said the Agriculture 
Department wanted to jump-start the process by advertising the job 
ahead of time.

Officials say the position is a natural fit for Yakima because the 
state's seed inspection program is already based here. Located at 21 
N. First Ave., the program employs up to 20 people during the peak of 
the growing season and tests a wide variety of seeds so growers and 
seed companies can comply with certification and labeling requirements.

Unlike legalization of recreational marijuana in Washington, the 
efforts around hemp have been less noticed.

"It seems like cannabis has gotten all the news," Ferrante said.

While related to marijuana, hemp has a low amount of the psychoactive 
ingredient, THC, that gives marijuana its high. But because of its 
relation to cannabis, a 1970 federal law made it illegal to grow hemp 
in the U.S. without a permit.

Some states, including Oregon, allow permitted hemp crops, but keep 
it tightly regulated. Elsewhere, dozens of other countries allow hemp 

The plant is used in the manufacturing of a wide range of products, 
including plastics, rope, textiles, paper and insulation. Such 
materials must contain no THC if they are imported into the U.S.

Joy Beckerman of Edmonds, a veteran hemp advocate who worked with the 
state Agriculture Department to write the law, said she is glad to 
see the research program coming to fruition.

Beckerman has worked with lawmakers and agency staff for three years 
while multiple bills stalled in the Legislature. She attributed the 
delay to the time needed to reach compromise on the competing bills, 
rather than any strong opposition to the idea of researching the 
possibility of hemp gaining a foothold among Washington's crops.

The state's efforts are tightly tied to research, not any imminent 
plan to see hemp crops pop up across the state.

About half of the 50 states have authorized industrial hemp programs; 
13 states have active programs.

Beckerman said the cautious approach is well warranted, in part to 
comply with federal regulations as well as making sure that hemp fits 
in to the agricultural landscape without the chance of 
cross-pollinations or other problems.

"It's a complicated little bugger and you've got to be careful with 
it," Beckerman said.

But marijuana growers are closely watching the state's work because 
of the close ties between the two products.

One of the program specialist's key duties will be outreach to those 
interested in hemp-related farming and research possibilities, 
Ferrante said. Public hearings will also be held.

Interest in the position - temporary, at least for now - has been 
low, but Agriculture officials say they hope to find someone who 
wants the chance to take the reins of crafting a cutting-edge program.

The position, which will pay from $3,740 to $4,913 a month over an 
expected nine-month term.

The state has a relatively modest budget of about $145,000 for the 
hemp rule-making process, with most of that going toward salary and benefits.

The process will include setting standards for how hemp seeds would 
be released to researchers. Agriculture would then monitor their use 
of the seeds and the end product.

Part of the legislation approved this year authorizes Washington 
State University, a leading agricultural research center, to prepare 
a report on the viability of a commercial hemp market for the state, 
but only if federal or private funding is secured.

Randall Fortenberry of WSU's School of Economic Science, who has 
studied hemp's commercial potential in Wisconsin and Washington, said 
no study funding has been identified yet.

"There's just not money sitting there to take on new initiatives that 
haven't been fully funded," he said.

The federal government may need to clarify what it will allow around 
hemp before federal funding becomes available, and the private market 
is not yet at a full-fledged stage where investors would provide 
research funding, Fortenberry said.

Marijuana growers and others are interested in the potential 
Washington market, but Fortenberry suggested that hemp may not be a 
sudden financial juggernaut.

Even in Canada, which has had an established commercial hemp industry 
for more than a decade, hemp remains a small part of the country's 
agricultural output, he said. Most fiber - for clothing, for example 
- - still comes from China.

Commodities in general have relatively low profit margins, 
Fortenberry said, and the same can likely be expected for any future 
market in Washington.

"If they think this is suddenly going to save agriculture or increase 
margins significantly, that is probably not going to happen," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom