Northern Virginia county officials debate hemp’s future
LEESBURG, Va. — The national attitude towards hemp is shifting and one Northern Virginia county is playing a role in the debate.
There have been considerable federal efforts to legalize the cannabinoid cousin of marijuana, which can be used to produce a diverse range of products including clothes food, and biofuel.
The 2014 Farm Bill formally recognized that hemp contains nearly negligible levels of the hallucinogenic THC, which began to distinguish it from marijuana in the eyes of the legal interpretations.
If passed, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which is included in the Senate’s 2018 Farm Bill currently sitting in conference committee, would legalize industrialized hemp production.
The bill is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a right-wing bulwark, who sees hemp as a potential substitute for the shrinking tobacco industry in his home state of Kentucky.
Just across the capital city lines in Virginia, a Washington, D.C., suburb in another state historically known for its tobacco production is hoping to make green off of the hemp wave.
Early in September, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to support legislation that removes industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances and allows states to become primary regulators of industrial hemp.
The county’s debate at the doorstep of the nation’s capital could foretell what’s to come for the national conversation about industrialized hemp — one that is filled with contradictions, unexpected alliances, and, perhaps ultimately, new opportunities for struggling farmers.
The primary driver behind the county’s push towards industrialized hemp is its expected boon to local farmers.
There are more than 1,400 active farms in the county that are estimated to generate nearly $400 million in value added to its economy.
According the Loudoun Department of Economic Development’s county report, opening industrial hemp production in Loudoun County would bolster the rural economy by giving area farmers the opportunity to diversify their crops and enter the global market for hemp products.
“Industrial hemp is topic of ongoing discussion relative mainly to its economic potential,” said county project manager David Street at the beginning of the county Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 4.
Along with the optimistic economic outlook, hemp has a number of agricultural benefits.
Hemp grows quickly, replenishes the soil, and uses little fertilizer and water. Buddy Rizer, executive director of the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, explained that hemp does not require specialized equipment beyond what is already used by most farmers in the county and could easily be added to rotation with other row crops without replacing any agricultural products.
But with exception for academic research and growers with proper registration, hemp production has been illegal in Virginia since the 1930s. Loudoun farmers may experience some growing pains as they work to rebuild the expertise to reap the economic potential of the crop.
“We’ve had interest in the process, but everyone’s trying to figure out exactly what that process is,” said Rizer. “I’m in favor of any available crops that are legal would be available for our farmers in order for them to monetize and preserve their farmland.”
County law enforcement, however, remained apprehensive about hemp’s connection to marijuana. Loudoun County Sheriff Michael Chapman told the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors that though he the federal law against hemp is virtually unenforceable due to lack of resources, legalizing hemp in Loudoun could complicate law enforcement’s work.
“I’m concerned about it,” Chapman said. “For me, the wisest thing to do would be to wait and see if any of the federal laws get passed. Marijuana has not been legalized here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but I look at this as a step towards that.”
The sheriff’s comments resonated with county lawmakers from both parties who worried about covert marijuana production in hemp fields.
Republican Supervisor Geary Higgins cited a previous incident in Loudoun County where marijuana had been hidden in a corn field as proof that the same could be easily done with hemp.
Though Street was quick to point out that cross-pollination would render both crops nearly unusable by diluting the THC content in marijuana and creating a higher than legal THC content the hemp, these concerns were unassuaged.
“During the discussion on industrial hemp, I asked the Sheriff if he felt the legalization of industrial hemp would make it more challenging for his officers to perform their law enforcement duties,” Democratic Supervisor Kristen Umstattd, who voted against the measure, wrote in an email. “He said he believed it would. That was my main consideration.”
But the majority of the county lawmakers voiced their support for industrialized hemp, ultimately leading to a 6-3 vote in favor of the measure to support pro-hemp legislation. Democratic Supervisor Koran Saines pointed out that incidents of illegal marijuana growth have happened outside of hemp fields, and would likely continue to do so regardless of whether hemp is legalized.
Republican Vice Chairman Ralph Buona further explained that the dense growth of industrial hemp is in conflict with the distributed growth of marijuana.
“This is an agricultural product. It is made in many countries. We are being left out,” Buona concluded. “If the economics are there, we need to provide as many options to our rural business community to keep the land in agricultural use.”
For now, Loudoun County stands in favor of hemp, but there is a greater lesson to be learned by this debate happening just outside of the capital.
The hesitation demonstrated by certain members of the county are indicative of the debate surrounding industrialized hemp going forward at a national level.
The breakdown is not along party lines, but instead aligns with a lingering fear — and, perhaps, a lack of understanding — of what the non-agricultural consequences of legalizing industrialized hemp could be.
“I am not in favor of legalizing marijuana, but the idea that you are going to grow this and it will lead to marijuana is not a correct statement,” said county chairwoman Phyllis Randall. “Kentucky is not a liberal state, West Virginia is not a liberal state, and those states are doing this already. We will be going to be left behind because we have fears and there are no basis in those fears.
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