Bill to legalize hemp gains momentum

  • A tractor cuts a small plot of hemp at a University of Kentucky research plot near Lexington in this Sept. 23, 2014, file photo. Alaska is the latest state contemplating legalization for industrial hemp. The state has already legalized the cultivation of recreational marijuana. (Photo/Dylan Lovan/AP)

Senate Bill 6 which would legalize industrial hemp in Alaska, seems to have support as it passes through subcommittees, but lawmakers still need to iron out some particulars with how the potential industry will pay for itself.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 20, Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Wasilla, explained that her bill takes up an issue brought to the Legislature by former Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat who introduced a bill to legalize hemp last session.

“I think the Division of Agriculture, they really want to welcome this industry,” Hughes said.

Indeed, Rob Carter, a Division of Agriculture program manager, told the committee that the division sees great potential in industrial hemp, particularly as a forage crop for livestock.

Hemp’s non-psychoactive fibers are also a source for textiles, paper, and a slew of other industrial products, as well as a food source. Hughes explained that the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper, and that the Pilgrims’s canvas sails and western settler canvas covered wagons were all hemp-based.

Carter said Alaska’s long growing season is suited for the plant — pictures from 1916 Palmer-area show farmers with healthy hemp crops.

Farmers in the Mat-Su have been looking for a way to grow hemp for some time. Larry DeVilbiss, farmer and former Mat-Su Borough mayor, has come out in strong support of the bill. The committee asked for Hughes to speak with staff and experts to develop a committee substitute to be reviewed later.

Much of the hearing was spent differentiating hemp from marijuana. Senators wanted to know whether the crops looked the same, whether they would be taxed the same, and whether there was any potential that hemp could be used as a base for illegal drugs.

“If someone is planting a crop of industrial hemp and let’s say there was a market collapse, and they say, ‘OK, I’ll just sell it as recreational hemp,’ could they do that?” asked Sen. Kevin Meyer.

“There wouldn’t be much recreation,” said Hughes. “The person would probably be hacking and coughing if they tried to use it that way.”

Agronomics experts said hemp wouldn’t be a market for synthetic drugs, either.

“Could hemp be dried and laced with something?” asked chair Sen. John Coghill. “We just have to be continually suspicious, that’s all.”

Rob Carter from the Division of Agriculture assured Coghill that dried hemp leaves would look no different and contain no more potential for abuse that spices.

“There’s plenty of other product at Costco that could be adulterated with another product,” said Carter.

The bill mirrors industrial hemp programs in other states. Famers growing industrial hemp would have to get a permit and report their activities. Like other hemp pilot programs, the state’s department of agriculture or a state research university would oversee all hemp cultivation.

The bill would define industrial hemp as separate from marijuana in statute. Following federal standards, any cannabis testing less than 0.3 percent THC — cannabis’s psychoactive chemical — is hemp. Studies show that THC’s psychoactive properties don’t take effect in concentrations under 1 percent.

Currently, the two are indistinguishable under Alaska law, which has led to some problems for marijuana vendors.

The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office seized thousands of dollars of imported hemp-derived products from cannabis retailers on Feb. 10, declaring them to be unlawful because they did not conform to Alaska regulations for production, packaging and labeling.

Those products come from a similar hemp pilot program in Colorado. If the hemp bill passes in the Alaska Legislature, the products would fall back into legal status, according to an AMCO directive given on Feb. 17.

“However, in light of Senate Bill 6, a proposal currently before the Alaska State Legislature that would legalize industrial hemp and modify the definition of marijuana in AS 17.38, the board voted to retain possession of the inventory until the end of the current legislative session,” reads a press release from the control office.

In the 2017 Legislature, all conversations boil down to cost, and hemp is no exception. Senators wanted to know what kind of taxation and fee schedule would apply to the program. Hughes said farmers were adamant that the current $50 per ounce excise tax levied on commercial marijuana would not work for hemp, which as an industrial product carries a smaller price.

The bill does establish that taxes and fees will have to fund the program’s regulation to break even, in such a way that farmers would not have to ask for funding from the Legislature.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com

Updated: 
02/22/2017 - 10:01am

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