Grass No, Hemp Yes! New VA Law Signed

Source: Purdue University

Two years of trade-dispute induced tariffs have decimated Virginia’s tobacco farmers, the president of Virginia’s Board for Agriculture and Consumer Services told his fellow board members Thursday.  As he spoke Governor Ralph Northam was upstairs in the same building preparing to sign legislation the industry hopes provides a path forward for those same farmers.

Hemp.  Industrial Hemp.  Not for smoking but for squeezing out the oil.

Robert J. Mills of Pittsylvania County is already in the business of growing hemp, some of which he says is being grown to meet organic standards for the state of California.   The production schedule for hemp is like tobacco’s, he said, it works well in the same soils, and tobacco curing barns can be used to dry the product.   

“Sometimes when things sound too good to be true, they aren’t true,” Mills told the board.  But clearly, he has high hopes.  Those in the industry now have faced extremely high start-up costs (he said $20,000 per acre) and have operated without crop insurance or other protections.   The changing law may make this a mainstream cash crop, but it will still be regulated.

The 2018 Farm Bill at the federal level liberalized the rules on hemp production and sales, and the legislation Northam signed Thursday brings Virginia’s rules in line.  The companion bills, Senate Bill 1692 and House Bill 1839, both had emergency clauses, so the law is now in effect.

The law lays the groundwork for production of the oil from hemp in Virginia under state supervision, as well.  It legalizes dealing in hemp by parties who are not the producers.

To qualify as industrial hemp the crop must test below 0.3 percent THC content, the intoxicant in the cannabis sativa plant.  The THC content in marijuana for consumption is about ten percent, but any plant with THC above the limit is treated as marijuana under the law.   CBD from hemp is not under the same restrictions as CBD from marijuana.  Any other product from hemp is also out from under the old legal cloud.

Virginia Tech has been doing research and promoting the product through its extension service. An industry advocacy group was easy to find but is not registered to lobby at the General Assembly.  It is (of course) run out of Nelson County.

The state law on hemp amended by these bills previously allowed hemp production only for research purposes, but that’s “out the window now,” reported VDACS Director of Policy Kevin Schmidt.  “We really are talking about full commercialization now.”  He explained some of the more intricate elements of the new bill, which allows a crop to slip above that 0.3 percent target to as high at 0.6 percent on some tests without the farmer being put out of business. It must be by accident.

If anybody is growing a crop with too much THC and is doing so with a “culpable mental state greater than negligence,” that person will lose their license and be reported to law enforcement.  That phrase may be new to the Code of Virginia.

Later this year Virginia will apply to the US Department of Agriculture to have the licensing and enforcement authority delegated to it, Schmidt said.  The race is on across the country.

The department is so excited about the bill that Secretary of Agriculture Bettina Ring came to make an unscheduled appearance before the board, touting the accomplishment before she went upstairs in the Patrick Henry Building to the signing ceremony.  She promised a more public (but totally ceremonial) signing for the bills later.

There wasn’t much splash about the issue during the session, and Mills indicated that was by design, with the pharmaceutical industry possibly stalking (pun intended) the bill to extinguish competition from Virginia farmers.  All the focus was on the fight over unsuccessful marijuana legalization.

Schmidt described an even more broad bill, House Bill 2256, ending state registration of any medical product containing any part of the cannabis plant, and this isn’t just hemp.  Those products, however, would be intended only for animals.  Northam signed that one March 8.  Are the pets in your neighborhood more mellow? Getting into your snack cabinet?  Got a veterinarian in your neighborhood?