Hemp Decriminalized in Washington, But Opposition Remains Strong

OLYMPIA, Wash. (May 15, 2017) – A bill recently signed by Washington Gov. Gov. Jay Inslee removed industrial hemp from the states controlled substance list, authorizing hemp production despite federal prohibition. But at least one state agency refuses to go down without a fight and essentially wants to help attorney general Jeff Sessions wage his war on cannabis.

House Bill 2064 (HB2064) simply removed industrial hemp from the state’s controlled substances act. While marijuana is legal in Washington state, it is still considered a controlled substance and heavily regulated. Passage of HB2064 removed hemp from regulation as a controlled substance, opening the door for a full-scale commercial hemp market in the state by treating it like any other crop for farming.

But the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) wants to license and regulate hemp cultivation, and ensure that all hemp growers comply with federal regulation. Another bill passed by the legislature (SB5131), but not yet signed by the governor, would allow the WSDA to unilaterally set penalties for unlicensed hemp production, essentially once again treating it like a controlled substance.

“We understand the impulse to remove industrial hemp from the state’s Controlled Substances Act,” WSDA policy adviser Steve Fuller told Capital Press. “It’s just the logistical questions it raises in operating our license system that gives us pause.”

Fuller said, despite passage of HB2064, the WSDA takes the position that hemp growers must obtain a license anyway. But without the enforcement provisions in SB5131, the claim lacks any teeth. If Gov. Inslee signs SB5131, it will strengthen the department’s position and allow it to prosecute anybody who attempts to grow hemp without a license. But absent those provisions, the state will not be able to stop unlicensed hemp production.

FEDERAL FARM BILL

Early in 2014, President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill into law, which included a provision allowing a handful of states to begin limited research programs growing hemp. The “hemp amendment”

"…allows State Agriculture Departments, colleges and universities to grow hemp, defined as the non-drug oil-seed and fiber varieties of Cannabis, for academic or agricultural research purposes, but it applies only to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law."

In short, current federal law authorizes the farming of hemp – by research institutions, or within state pilot programs, for research only. Farming for commercial purposes by individuals and businesses remains prohibited.

Passage of HB2064 opened the door for Washington farmers to ignore federal prohibition and grow hemp anyway. While prospective hemp growers still have to take federal law into consideration, by eliminating the state requirement for federal permission, this law clears away a major obstacle to widespread commercial hemp farming within the borders of the state. WSDA wants to undo that and ensure strict compliance with federal law.

HELPING JEFF SESSIONS

“While other blue states like California and New York are considering bills to withdraw state resources from the enforcement of federal marijuana or immigration laws, the WSDA seems hell-bent on helping Jeff Sessions keep his immoral and unconstitutional prohibition on hemp in place,” public policy analyst Michael Boldin said.

The Washington Hemp Industries Association has come down on the side of Sessions and the feds as well. The organization advocated for strict compliance in a recent press release.

"Despite the recent passage of House Bill 2064, which removed industrial hemp from the State Uniform Controlled Substances Act, the cultivation of industrial hemp requires a license in Washington under RCW 15.120, much like farming a Dungeness crab requires a license. The WSDA has been given high praise from hemp industry leaders around the world for promulgating a federally-compliant hemp program that positions Washington to lead the U.S. in the promising economic and agricultural opportunities that hemp provides. There are a multitude of benefits and protections that come with federal compliance, and most U.S. States that have passed industrial hemp legislation have fallen short of implementing compliant programs, which compromises farmers and impedes the ability to develop successful commercial oilseed and fiber hemp markets."

In fact, the most robust hemp industries have developed in states not concerned with federal compliance, such as Colorado. Farmers in southeastern Colorado began harvesting hemp in the fall of 2013 after growing the crop was legalized in the state along with recreational marijuana. In 2015, the first large-scale industrial hemp processing plant opened. Last year, the amount of hemp planted doubled. Some have called the Centennial State the “Silicon Valley of Hemp.”

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Washington’s neighbor to the south offers another hemp success story. Oregon also has a hemp program that simply ignores the feds. The state initially legalized hemp in 2009. Last year, Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 4060 into law. It relaxed state laws regulating hemp already on the books and made the crop more like other agricultural products. Within months, the Oregon Department of Agriculture had already promulgated new rules under the reformed law. According to Oregon’s Cannabis Connection, the rules set the stage to creates a “massive” medical hemp market.

In Vermont, yet another state with a non-compliant hemp program, the business community announced a $250,000 investment in the state’s fledgling hemp industry last fall.

None of this can happen in states that defer to federal law. This type of commercial production is not allowed.

“Simply put, this notion that federally compliant programs somehow enhances creation of a hemp market is bunk,” Boldin said. “It’s demonstrably false.”

While the chance of federal prosecution and interference exists in state with programs not compliant with federal law, the likelihood remains low. The feds don’t have the resources to maintain prohibition. Washingtonians should know this given their experience with legalized marijuana. We know that 99 of 100 marijuana arrests happen at the state or local level. If the feds aren’t able to crack down on marijuana, they certainly aren’t going to be able to maintain prohibition of hemp without state assistance. It seems bizarre that the state would obsess over complying with federal drug war dictates relating to hemp when it completely defies federal law when it comes to marijuana.

The bottom line is there’s no reason for Washington hemp farmers to comply with federal mandates and limit hemp production to research. Everybody knows a viable hemp market exists. If it didn’t the U.S. wouldn’t have to import hemp from Canada and China to meed demand. The WSDA needs to back off and stop trying to serve as foot soldiers in Sessions' war on drugs.