Legislature considers legalizing commercial hemp

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Both chambers of the Legislature sent separate proposals to the floor Wednesday pushing for the legalization of commercial hemp production in West Virginia.

Hemp, a variety of the cannabis sativa crop, often is associated with marijuana. However, the new legislation trumpets hemp’s industrial uses. The proposals state so long as the crop stays below a 1 percent threshold of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of marijuana, it can be produced after receiving licensing from the Agriculture Commissioner.

At its meeting Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee sent Senate Resolution 35 up to the chamber floor.

That resolution, if passed through the House of Delegates as well, works as a call from the Legislature to the U.S. Congress to distinguish hemp from marijuana by the THC threshold.

Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monogalia, said commercial hemp means jobs for West Virginia in terms of production, manufacturing it into commercial products, and retail.

As far as its special proximity to marijuana, he said the two crops’ usages show their differences.

“With hemp, the old saying is you could smoke 500 acres of it and it won’t get you high,” he said.

Hemp products can be made through the crop’s fiber, seed, seed oil and floral extracts including paper, fabric, auto parts, animal bedding, body care products and essential oils, according to the resolution.

Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, voiced support for the resolution as well. She said Kentucky already has embraced hemp as a cash crop, and it’s time for West Virginia to catch up.

Crescent Gallagher, communications director for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said the department fully supports both the Senate resolution and the House bill. Though the crop’s relationship to marijuana has gummed up similar legislation in the past, he said newfound support could push the bill through this year.

“The Department fully supports the Senate resolution and House bill,” he said. “We believe hemp is a niche crop that has the opportunity to bring producers into the state.”

Under current law, only the Department of Agriculture and colleges and universities authorized by the Agriculture Commissioner can grow hemp in the state.

Following suit with the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee chose to send HB 2453 to the floor, which gives discretion to the Commissioner of Agriculture to dispense licenses to produce hemp commercially.

However, it only allows those licensed through a university to grow hemp for research purposes, not commercial ones.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5149 or @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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