Pubdate: Sat, 31 Dec 2016
Source: Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
Copyright: 2016 The Morning Call Inc.
Author: Andrew Wagaman


[photo] Heather Skorinko had hoped to grow industrial hemp on her North
Whitehall Township farm, but the state's restrictive pilot program will
lock out most family farms, she said. (APRIL BARTHOLOMEW/THE MORNING CALL)

Industrial hemp returns to Pennsylvania in 2017. So why are advocates so
riled up?

Too often in recent years, Heather Skorinko has struggled to make money
growing corn and soybeans on her North Whitehall Township farm, which has
been in the family for more than 120 years.

She has especially grown weary of the uncertainty sown by ever-fluctuating
prices. Corn farmers have seen earnings this decade jump 50 percent over
two years, only to drop for the last four years.

But Skorinko found cause for hope in 2015 when she discovered the movement
to legalize cultivation of industrial hemp, the strait-laced sibling of
marijuana. Both come from the same fibrous plant, but hemp has a
negligible amount of the psychoactive substance that gets you high --
delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. And it happens to be a versatile
crop, used to make everything from rope and clothing to health food and
beauty products.

After doing some research, the 60-year-old grandmother realized she could
grow hemp on part of her 170-acre farm without buying any new equipment.
She began to make plans with a neighboring farmer in the summer after the
state Legislature unanimously approved a research pilot program. Here,
finally, was a cash crop that might provide stability for farmers. And it
could be a boon to others too, potentially spurring a billion-dollar
industry in Pennsylvania, advocates say.

Then in December the state Department of Agriculture released the pilot
program's permitting guidelines. It didn't take long for Skorinko to
realize hemp would remain, at least for another year, virtually off-limits
to family farms such as hers.

The department limited permits to 30 and projects to 5 acres, and is
charging permit recipients a $3,000 administrative fee. Among a slew of
other expenses, it will also charge $100 an hour including travel time for
an indefinite number of site inspections, and $200 per hemp sample to test
THC levels.

Since 2014, the federal government has permitted the cultivation of hemp
for research, and some states have decided such research should include
commercial endeavors. Farmers can grow industrial hemp for commercial
purposes in at least 16 states, according to the National Conference of
State Legislatures.

Not in Pennsylvania, though. The Department of Agriculture restricted
research to hemp fiber and seed despite both federal and state legislators
being open to studying any part of the cannabis plant with a THC level
beneath 0.3 percent. And perhaps most maddening to prospective growers:
The department will not permit projects "for the purposes of general
commercial activity."

In other words: Skorinko would have no way to make any financial return on
her investment.

"The regulations are ridiculous," Skorinko said. "It's mind-boggling to me
that they didn't take the time to really understand the plant when making
a decision that could positively affect the future of farming in

Department of Agriculture officials say the program guidelines represent
an honest effort to learn more about the cultivation of, and potential
market for, industrial hemp while also shrewdly navigating a patchwork of
federal law.

State officials are waiting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the
Drug Enforcement Administration to answer some of the same questions hemp
advocates are asking state officials, figuring the parameters could always
be loosened.

"We are doing exactly what we need to do to determine what factors would
contribute to a successful commercial industry, if and when legislation is
in place to allow that," said Ruth Welliver, the state Agriculture
Department's director of plant industry.

Critics call the permitting guidelines paternalistic and argue that only
universities, larger farming operations and established outsider hemp
businesses can feasibly afford to participate in the pilot program. The
state Agriculture Department addressed one aspect of that criticism last
month, announcing that pilot program participants can apply for a $1,000
cost-sharing program, that would cut the administrative fee to $2,000.

But critics fear the state's cautious approach will cause it to
substantially miss out on a burgeoning market.

Pennsylvania is one of the top five importers of hemp in the nation, and
farmers and entrepreneurs are more than willing to calculate and assume
economic risk themselves, according to Erica McBride of Keystone Cannabis

"We're asking the state to get out of the way," she said. "If it's not
economically viable to grow hemp, people will figure that out. But they
deserve the chance to try."

Geoff Whaling, a Berks County farmer and entrepreneur, had planned on
investing $5 million in an operation that would have included the state's
first hemp processor. It's not going to happen in 2017, he said, when a
maximum 150 acres are being harvested.

Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council, is aware of
at least two other entrepreneurs who have decided to take multimillion
investments to other states that are allowing commercial activity.

The permitting guidelines are "manifestly violating state law" because
they redefine what industrial hemp is, Whaling charged, and are "the
makings of a lawsuit."

U.S. manufacturers import tens of millions of pounds annually in hemp
seeds from Canada and millions of dollars of raw and processed hemp fiber
and other products from China and Europe. Hemp's fiber (which grows on the
outer portion of the stalk) and hurd (which grows on the inner portion)
can be used for fabric, paper and rope as well as plastic for automobile
parts and home building materials such as "hempcrete." The imports
generate annual U.S. sales of nearly $600 million, according to industry
estimates cited in a 2015 U.S. Congressional Research Service report.

Some researchers have studied uses of hemp seed oil for fuel and medicine.
Others have found that, because of its woody nature and long taproot, hemp
can be grown as a conservation crop to suck up toxins from soil and to
mitigate polluted runoff.

Bryan Berger, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular
engineering at Lehigh University, plans to apply for a permit to study
hemp's ability to remediate metal-heavy soils at sites where mining or
other industrial activities had occurred. He's also interested in what
potential uses remain for toxin-sucking hemp.

Pennsylvania's relationship with hemp dates to the days of William Penn
himself. According to hemp historian Les Stark, the state General Assembly
encouraged farmers to grow hemp in 1683. And during the 18th and 19th
centuries, Lancaster County alone was home to more than 100 water-powered
hemp fiber processors.

But to understand hemp's history is to understand its relationship to
marijuana, the mind-altering flower that can grow from a Cannabis sativa
plant if cultivated for that purpose.

When the cannabis plant is cultivated for its stalk, fiber and hurd --
industrial hemp varieties -- it grows tall like corn. That's not conducive
to growing marijuana, which is why advocates dismiss fears of hemp being
used as a front. California marijuana growers have actually fought hemp
deregulation because they believe hemp pollen will ruin their crop.

Nevertheless, when Pennsylvania outlawed marijuana in 1933, it curtailed
the hemp crop as well. Amid a sensationalistic propaganda campaign,
Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which taxed industrial
uses. A few years later, desperate for materials to make parachutes and
other military necessities, the government actually made a film called
"Hemp for Victory" that encouraged farmers to grow the crop.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Control Substances Act, which
classified all varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant as a schedule one
drug -- alongside heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Legal hemp cultivation became
virtually impossible under strict DEA regulations.

The tide turned in 2014, when Congress included a section in the Federal
Farm Bill allowing institutions of higher education and persons contracted
by state agriculture departments to grow hemp without a DEA permit.

But the bill's vague language left unclear the allowable commercial scope
of state pilot programs, and it did not change the Controlled Substances
Act to exempt hemp varieties of cannabis. Therefore, any hemp grown
outside the bounds of a given state's pilot program parameters remains
illegal without that DEA permit.

'Let this industry grow'

State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Berks County Democrat, spearheaded the
legislative effort to reintroduce hemp in Pennsylvania, one of more than
30 states to do so in some capacity since the 2014 Farm Bill. In July,
Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law establishing the research pilot program.

Three weeks later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the DEA and
Food and Drug Administration attempted to clarify how federal law actually
applies to industrial hemp. But hemp advocates say they only raised more
questions and ultimately prompted the Pennsylvania Agriculture Department
to be more cautious when writing its pilot program rules. Industrial hemp
products, the federal agencies said, may only be sold among states with
pilot programs, and only for the purpose of "marketing research" -- not
"general commercial activity."

Confused? So was a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives.
In a letter to the three federal agencies, they pointed out that Congress
has prevented the agencies from messing with state pilot programs that
comply with the 2014 Farm Bill.

The problem, said Ross Pifer, director of the Center for Agricultural and
Shale Law at Penn State, is that the Controlled Substances Act prohibits
certain activities that the Farm Bill has authorized. That concerns state
legislators and others preparing Pennsylvania's pilot program.

The imminent change in administration complicates matters, Pifer said.
Will the new leaders of federal agencies interpret existing law the same
way, or come up with their own?

That uncertainly might make Pennsylvania's approach seem prudent.

"Unlike other states, we took a great interest in not crossing lines that
the federal government has established," said state Rep. Russ Diamond,
R-Lebanon County, who sponsored Pennsylvania hemp pilot bill. "Depending
on what happens with the new administration in Washington, those other
states moving faster than us could be in trouble."

Some fear it's Pennsylvania that will be in trouble as other states take
the lead. The Pennsylvania Farmers Union said in a statement that the
state "missed a golden opportunity to leapfrog to the leadership role
Pennsylvania historically held in U.S. industrial hemp production."

Schwank believes the state Agriculture Department acted too cautiously and
should have done a better job consulting stakeholders. For example, she
said, many are disappointed they cannot study CBD, an oil extract used for
medicinal purposes.

"There was a disconnect between what we had anticipated and what the
actual guidelines turned out to be," she said. "I'm going to continue to
reach out to the department and encourage them to let this industry grow."

1683: Two years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania, the General
Assembly passes "an act for the encouraging of raising hemp in

1685: Penn predicts hemp would be a trade staple for the state.

The hemp plant has many uses and is an ingredient in many products,

Rope, clothing and other textiles, seed snacks, salad oil, cereal, soap,
deodorant, cosmetics, pulp and paper, plastic composites for automobile
parts, insulation, paneling, hempcrete and other construction materials,
biodiesel fuel, paint, anti-inflammatory drugs and other medicines.
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