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Opinion Northwest

Join the informed writers of The Times' editorial board in lively discussions at our blog, Opinion Northwest.

February 25, 2013 at 6:00 AM

First marijuana, now industrial hemp

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Hemp has long been an item of zealotry. Marijuana campaigners can talk you numb about hemp, and how wonderful it is. Now that the state of Washington has voted to decriminalize marijuana, it makes sense also to permit farming in hemp—and a bill is moving in the Legislature to do that: House Bill 1888, sponsored by Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, one of the Legislature’s conservatives.

Both hemp and marijuana are the plant cannabis sativa, with the hemp variety having much less of the intoxicant THC. Hemp is not sold to make people high. Historically it has been used to make twine and rope. Now it is imported from Canada for fancy soaps, cosmetics, edible oils and oil paints. An Oregon company, Bob’s Red Mill, sells hulled hemp seed as a specialty food.

“Instead of importing this stuff,” says Shea, “Why don’t we grow it?” Maine and Oregon have passed bills legalizing hemp, at least under state law. Eastern Washington, he says, has the perfect climate for it.

It makes sense. If Americans can buy the products, why ban the plants?

Since Initiative 502, Washington no longer bans marijuana, which may have 10 or 20 percent THC content. Shea hadn’t supported 502. He’s a lawyer, he says he could see legal problems in the initiative—“problems the Legislature is working on now.” But in H.B. 1888, he supports hemp.

Last week H.B. 1888 cleared the House Committee on Government Accountability & Oversight on a bipartisan vote. The bill declares hemp to be the plant cannabis sativa with less than 1 percent THC by weight. To make sure farmers are growing the right plants, the bill would give the state Department of Agriculture a monopoly on the sale of seeds.

Mark Streuli, policy analyst to the director, said the Agriculture Department supports the bill. “It’s always exciting to have a new crop,” he said at the hearing Feb. 21. “The feds still look at this as a drug. To us, it’s a crop.”

Several notes of caution: This is another case in which the state would be challenging the federal government. Hemp is not the big deal marijuana is, but H.B. 1888 is still a kind of nullification bill.

Cannabis fans who have been talking up hemp should note that Canada’s experience has been limited and uneven. Since legalizing hemp in 1998, Canada’s acreage has varied between 2,500 and 48,000. The peak was reached in anticipation of industrial fiber plants in Manitoba that were never built.

Another issue is how hemp farming will affect marijuana. The two crops cannot be grown near each other outside, because the hemp plant will cross-pollinate the marijuana plant and ruin it. This is one of the reasons why most marijuana growers are expecting to grow it indoors.


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