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Alaska Marijuana News

Could hemp become Alaska's next big agricultural crop?

Jack Bennett’s family hemp farm in Oregon, Aug. 2016. (Maggie Hegarty)

Will fields of hemp find a place among Alaska's agricultural crops? At least one Alaska lawmaker hopes so.

In January, Palmer Republican Shelley Hughes introduced a bill — Senate Bill 6 — that would allow for the creation of an Alaska hemp industry fully separate from commercial marijuana.

Hughes said she introduced the bill after hearing from farmers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough who would like to grow hemp, particularly to feed livestock.

"I'm hoping it maybe, in a small way, opens up an economic opportunity for Alaskans," Hughes said. She cited the vast array of goods that can be created from hemp — some estimate more than 25,000 possible products — including textiles, food and construction materials.

Whether the venture would be profitable in Alaska remains to be seen. Hughes pointed to a 1916 document from the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Stations that says hemp "fruited abundantly" during a summer crop in the then-territory.

Former Sen. Johnny Ellis, a Democrat from Anchorage, introduced a similar bill last session that didn't make it through the Legislature. Hughes had to reintroduce it, and tweaked it after reviewing hemp federal guidelines.

Under the bill, hemp would be considered an agricultural product, and excluded from Alaska's definition of marijuana. The hemp industry would be regulated by the Division of Agriculture, instead of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.

Tightly controlled, state-run hemp pilot programs were made legal at the federal level by the 2014 Federal Farm Bill.

Under SB 6, Alaska's farmers would be able to produce, process and sell hemp. An individual, college or university, or the Alaska Department of Natural Resources could partake in the pilot program.

Hemp would be defined in Alaska statutes as cannabis sativa L., containing no more than 0.3 percent THC. That's the common definition both at a federal and state level, which the California-based Project CBD says originated from a 1976 taxonomic report by a Canadian plant scientist who never intended to create the legal standard for hemp versus marijuana.

Twenty-nine of the 30 states that have legalized hemp cultivation use this standard, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hughes said she hasn't seen much opposition to the bill. But other matters, like the looming budget deficit, could delay action on the hemp issue, she said.

After the seizure of cannabidiol products from marijuana stores in mid-February, Alaska's Marijuana Control Board has decided to wait and see how SB 6 plays out before destroying the products or making changes to existing rules.

If the bill doesn't pass, the Marijuana Control Board may opt to destroy the seized products — about 1,500 items altogether, according to Sara Chambers, acting director for the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.

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