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Bill plants the seed for hemp farming

Fri., Feb. 22, 2013, midnight

Most hemp products in the U.S. are imported

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 crops. They share one key element: They’re currently both against federal law.

Despite the federal ban, the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee on Thursday approved 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 before final passage.

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, he added.

The United States imports most hemp products now because the federal government bans the cannabis sativa plant, which has some strains processed for something entirely different: marijuana. In past years, supporters of legalizing hemp often joined with supporters of legalized marijuana, or were one and 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.

Strains of the plant that are good for hemp 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 possibility of a new crop. Nine other states have passed laws regarding hemp production, but none grows hemp as a crop.

The federal government still bans the plant, so the state would want to make sure that having the state Agriculture Department license hemp growers doesn’t jeopardize federal funds, Streuli said.

The original version of Shea’s bill started 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.

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