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Editorial: State agricultural panel too cautious about hemp

The United States consumes an estimated $500 million in products derived from industrial hemp, most of them imported because Congress has refused to recognize the crop as one distinct from marijuana.

The farm bill President Barack Obama is expected to sign today will take the nation closer to again allowing hemp cultivation. American universities will be permitted to grow hemp for research, a step supporters hope will lead to re-establishing a hemp industry in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the state Senate Agriculture, Water & Rural Economic Development Committee does not seem ready to let Washington State University make the most of the opportunity. As proposed, Senate Bill 6214 would have authorized WSU to grow hemp. But the committee’s version instead authorizes only a review of existing literature on hemp cultivation, with a report due next January.

Other states are not being nearly so cautious.

Kentucky, which is looking for a crop to replace tobacco, is reportedly prepared to license farmers to grow hemp this year. Oregon officials say they want to have rules in place that will allow spring planting.

The hesitance in Olympia is particularly perplexing given Washington’s legalization of marijuana. One witness who testified for SB 6214 says she is already getting calls from potential buyers of the industrial product because they assume lawful growth of the intoxicating plant means the industrial variety is OK, too.

There are many distinctions between the two plants. The important difference is a level of THC in industrial hemp far below one that would produce a high, if smoked or eaten.

But hemp does have thousands of other uses as a nutritional seed or oil, or a fiber that can be converted into paper, building blocks or automobile components, to name a few. Early Fords had hemp-derived body panels.

It may be a better base for ethanol than corn.

Because hemp absorbs tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide, anything made with it will also trap the gas for decades, if not longer. How much gas, using how much water and on what kind of soils would be among the questions crop studies by WSU scientists might answer.

The Agriculture Committee’s timid approach does not square with lofty vision written into the bill: “It is the intent of the legislature to encourage the development of an industrial hemp industry as a fecund addition to our state’s cornucopia.”

Well, then, let’s get on with it to the extent the national farm bill will allow.

The revised SB 6214 did strip away language that prematurely imposed a hemp bureaucracy. Once Congress is ready to go beyond cultivation by universities, the fewer the obstacles impeding hemp-based industry, the better.

Washington farmers grow about 300 different commodities. Hemp might not be a crop of choice among so many alternatives. With help from WSU, they can figure that out for themselves.

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