OLYMPIA -- The cannabis plant could provide Washington state with two new agricultural crops: One for smoking, and one making rope and fabric.
Different strains of the plant would be used for the different products, and different state agencies would control the different crops. But they share one key similarity: They're currently both against federal law.
Despite the federal ban, the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee this morning approved HB 1888, a bill that would pave the way for farmers to grow industrial hemp in Washington. Legislators and a representative from the state Agriculture Department agreed there are some details that need to be worked out. . .
It would give the state a new crop, particularly around Yakima, the Spokane Valley and the Palouse, said the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. It could also generate manufacturing jobs for the processed product.
"Dryland farmers can grow this crop with little adjustment," Shea said. Hemp has the potential to be a crop worth tens of millions of dollars.
The United States imports most hemp products now because the federal government bans the cannabis plant, which in some strains is processed for something entirely different, marijuana. In past years, supporters of legalizing hemp often joined with supporters of legalized marijuana, or were one in the same.
With the passage last fall of Initiative 502, Washington is in the midst of setting up a system to legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use. The State Liquor Control Board is working on regulations and licensing plans for growers, distributors and retailers.
But those rules won't cover the production of hemp and the manufacture of hemp products.
Hemp and marijuana both come from the same plant, cannabis sativa. Hemp plants are high in cannabidiol, which provides the fibrous strength for things like rope, but low in THC, a hallucinogenic chemical.
Marijuana plants are high in THC and low in cannabidiol.
Mark Streuli of the state Agriculture Department, said the agency is always excited about the possibillity of a new crop. Nine other states have passed laws regarding hemp production, but none grows hemp yet as a crop.
The federal government still bans the plant, so the state would want to make sure that having the Ag Department license hemp growers doesn't jeopardize federal funds, Streuli said.
"The feds still look at it as a drug. We look at it as a crop," he said.
The original version of Shea's bill starts with a declaration that "a fair and honest reading of the U.S. Constitution with an original understanding of the founders and ratifiers makes it quite clear that the federal government has no constitutional authority to override state laws on marijuana." It calls federal efforts to interpret the Constitution to claim this authority are dubious at best and "at worst an intentional attack on the Constitution and your liberty." The bill would "nullify" federal laws that go beyond the Constitution, it says.
Committee Chairman Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, said the overall bill was good, but suggested the panel strike that opening section. It did, and passed the bill on an 8-0 vote.