PORT REPUBLIC — U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s industrial hemp bill charged this year’s industrial hemp field day, which drew about two dozen people to Glenn Rodes’ Port Republic farm Friday.
Goodlatte’s Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2017 would remove industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act’s definition of marijuana and would allow states to create hemp cultivation programs.
It is illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. unless it is grown for an approved university research program, which requires background checks and fingerprinting, said Mike Renfroe, the biology professor at James Madison University heading up the school’s hemp research.
Rodes has about 10 acres of hemp, which he has grown in conjunction with JMU’s research for the last two years.
This was the second hemp field day, an event drawing Virginia lawmakers, hemp advocates, researchers and law enforcement to discuss the plant and its potential commercial industry.
Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, said he thinks his bill has a good chance of being signed into law, noting its bipartisan support.
“We do need to educate more people about hemp, but the people who are supporting it are broad-based,” he said. “This is a product that should have been legal, and this bill will make it legal. And it will create lots of jobs, not just for farmers but for all kinds of manufacturers and food processors and so on in the country.”
Hemp can be used to make different products including fiber, oil, animal bedding, clothing and food products.
Marijuana contains much more tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound, than hemp. Industrial hemp cannot contain more than 0.3 percent THC under federal law. Marijuana may contain 20 to 30 percent.
The two are in the same species, Renfroe said, but are different plants. For example, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are also in the same species but have obvious differences.
And while hemp production is not legal in the U.S., the nation imports hemp products. If industrial hemp cultivation were legalized, Renfroe said, farmers could begin growing it, providing a steady supply of raw material. This may entice processors to set up shop for farmers to sell it to.
“Instead of importing millions of dollars worth of hemp products from overseas every year,” Renfroe said, “we can make our own right here in America.”
Old Dominion Hemp owner Marty Phipps, who sells imported hemp animal bedding out of his warehouse in Waynesboro, said that if commercial hemp production were to be legalized, it would cut his production costs in half.
He imports hemp bedding from Europe and Asia, leading to high shipping costs, he said, rather than buying hemp from Rodes 20 minutes away. He sells 100,000 pounds of hemp product a month all over the country.
Phipps imports hurd, the inner core of the hemp stem, which provides a low-dust, absorbent animal bedding, he said, and can also be used to build homes, among other uses.
But the plant smells similar to marijuana, which is concerning to law enforcement.
Daniel Wilson, Virginia State Police attorney, said drug dogs will be alerted by industrial hemp. Though the THC levels are lower than marijuana, the dogs are trained to notify officers based on smell and cannot tell the difference, he said, which could complicate border checks and police stops.
Some law enforcement are concerned that the courts could determine that the dog’s alert is no longer probable cause to make a search, he said.
“The state police is very pro-business, is very pro-farmer and wants to do all the things that we can to work with these folks,” Wilson said, “but we have concerns that this may interfere with our illegal narcotics eradication programs and our illegal narcotics interdiction programs.”
Samuel Morton, associate engineering professor at JMU researching hemp’s benefit on the local agricultural economy, warned against rushing into the hemp industry.
“I would urge rational caution,” he said. “Let’s move forward on the things we know we can do well and ask the right questions to solve the things that we don’t know well, that we don’t know clearly yet.”
Friday was the first time Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, saw the plant in-person, something he described as “eye-opening.”
“This is an exciting opportunity,” he said, “in something brand new to us to create a whole new flourishing industry.”