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Did Alaska legalize industrial hemp along with recreational cannabis?

  • Author: Scott Woodham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 15, 2015

DK wonders a few things: "How is hemp affected in the legalization of cannabis? Is hemp farming legal? Hypothetically, can I have a 5-acre hemp farm? Any information on the legality and reality of hemp cultivation/industrialization is welcomed."

Well, sorry to bear disappointment, DK. Hemp is not yet legal to grow on a commercial scale in Alaska.

Federal controlled substances laws still lump hemp into Uncle Sam's definition of "marihuana," which means anyone growing it on any kind of commercial scale without approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency would be risking a federal raid, just as Alex White Plume risked one when he planted a crop in 2000 on Pine Ridge Reservation. The illegality of hemp at the federal level was not altered by Alaska's vote to legalize, tax and regulate.

However, action has been taken at that level to separate, in practice, non-intoxicating industrial cannabis from the intoxicating types that the federal government still lists as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. A section of the Farm Bill signed into law by President Obama last year opened the door to industrial hemp cultivation by universities and state departments of agriculture for research purposes, effectively ending one part of the federal government's conflation of industrial and intoxicating varieties of cannabis. Other parts of that remain however.

Read more Highly Informed: Seeking answers to Alaska's cannabis questions

Two related pieces of federal legislation address the remaining federal connection between the two kinds of cannabis, S. 134 and H.R. 525 (which is co-sponsored by Alaska's Rep. Don Young), being considered in this current Congress. Both seek to remove industrial hemp from the federal controlled substances definition of "marihuana." Among other things, it would define industrial hemp as the genus Cannabis sativa linnaeus that contains "not more than 0.3 percent delta-nine THC on a dry weight basis," and deems a plant to meet that concentration if it's being cultivated for industrial purposes according to state laws.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 13 states have statutes establishing a commercial industrial hemp programs, and seven have passed laws establishing such programs and limiting them to agricultural or academic research. Alaska isn't currently among either group, but legislation has been submitted that would change that.

Senate Bill 8, introduced by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would establish a pathway for commercial industrial hemp cultivation in Alaska and provide an affirmative defense to licensees against charges of violating state controlled substance laws. The bill's current form does not restrict hemp cultivation to research purposes only.

"I support the freedom to farm, and that's why I'm interested in pushing this bill forward," said Sen. Ellis in a phone interview from Juneau. "It's federal overreach. When they outlawed marijuana with THC in it, they outlawed industrial hemp."

Ellis and his staff say they've spoken to people in agricultural areas of the state, from the Interior and the Matanuska Valley to Homer, who are interested in seeing whether it will work as a rotation crop at least, if not a cash crop later on. He said the industry people envision right now is more geared toward figuring out whether industrial hemp cultivation could become something viable in Alaska, or whether it could at least help established farms somehow.

Although cannabis is being grown in similarly cool climates in other places around the world, industrial hemp possibilities are largely unknown in Alaska, just as they are in the rest of the U.S. Ellis acknowledged the uncertainty, but said it's worth letting people experiment with if it could benefit Alaska's agricultural industry.

Ellis said that his bill has support from members of both parties, and the endorsement of the Alaska Farm Bureau, but he expects the measure will have to wait until next year for a chance to move through. He said there hasn't been any expressed opposition he's heard of.

My guess is that he's right about waiting until next year. Despite bipartisan support and no opposition, Ellis isn't a member of the majority, and since much of the marijuana legislation submitted this session has apparently stalled out, SB 8 will have a difficult time passing this year. But all that's a guess, and anything can happen.

Unless SB 8 passes, we're left with current state law. According to that, a person could grow up to three immature industrial hemp plants and three mature, per the allowance for non-commercial, personal-use growing approved with Ballot Measure 2. But that'd be kind of pointless, like a corn farmer growing three stalks at a time, and not much use for research purposes. Plus, selling anything from a personal cannabis garden is still illegal in Alaska, no matter what type of cannabis would end up being sold.

Hemp resurgent

Hemp, for folks who don't know, is a species of cannabis, Cannabis sativa Linnaeus, but it's a variety that only contains almost none of the chief psychoactive chemical in cannabis known as THC. Essentially, it's grown for its fiber and seeds rather than its resins. Hemp grown for industrial purposes contains enough THC to qualify for a federal ban, but far too little to get anyone high at all.

Hemp's chief uses are in untold hundreds of industrial applications: everything from paper to carpets, and maybe even nanofibers and alternative plastics. Because hemp has been off the scientific table for so long, researchers and industry don't really know everything it could be used for with today's technology. Aside from the better-known uses for fiber, like rope, food and cloth, a short list of possibilities includes things like building materials, an alternative to fiberglass, plus use as a fuel and livestock feed. And that list doesn't even scratch the surface.

The USDA's economic Research Service explored the status and market potential in January of 2000, and considered hundreds of variables in all aspects of the industry, from growing to processing and marketing. But that was before grocery shoppers started seeing hemp seeds being used in granola bars and nutritional supplements everywhere. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center has collected a list of other, more current, studies on market, processing, manufacturing and cultivation.

Industrial hemp was once grown widely across the United States, and still grows wild in ditches in some parts of the Midwest, but it got wrapped up in the war on marijuana that intensified in the late 1930's. Except for a brief period during World War II when growing hemp was considered a patriotic exercise (film below), the industrial hemp industry in the U.S. basically disappeared.

Lately, industrial hemp in the U.S. is starting to show signs of renewal, however. Many former hemp-producing states are starting to look at it as a new opportunity, and are hoping to take domestic market share from farms in Canada, Europe and China, where most of the world's hemp seed and fiber are grown.

What are the chances in Alaska?

Jeff Lowenfels, master horticulturalist and Alaska Dispatch News garden columnist said that industrial hemp farming is not his forte, but that he expects the same things about Alaska's geography that make growing any variety of cannabis outdoors difficult would also apply to industrial hemp.

He said, however, that he thinks there are varieties that could grow here, and that the plant could become even better adapted to the climate here. But a big question remains in his mind: "One of the things about hemp is that it goes to seed and provides the next crop. Would that happen under our shortening daylight versus freezing autumns? I don't think hemp is a greenhouse-type crop."

Steve Brown, the UAF Cooperative Extension Service's Mat-Su/Copper River District agriculture and horticulture agent, said that the rules prohibit him from giving anyone advice when it comes to growing any variety of cannabis, but that growing industrial cannabis as a cash crop in Alaska would probably be a tough proposition. He thinks there are varieties of hemp that would grow in Alaska, but he expects none would thrive here.

Given that farms in lower latitudes already have breeds of hemp suited to thrive in their climates, and they would be closer to bigger markets and industrial-scale processing equipment, Alaska would likely start at a disadvantage if it wanted to push for an industry around hemp as a cash crop beyond use for the local market. It's worth noting that Alaska's history of ambitiously subsidizing agricultural projects to compete with operations elsewhere has been checkered -- the barley project and Matanuska Valley dairy farms to name two fresh examples.

"It's just a matter of growing the plant where it wants to grow," Brown said of Alaska's potential for large-scale hemp production. "Financially, there's just no way for Alaska to compete. Compared to a more suitable crop, like rhodiola, it would just not make sense."

Aside from how much industrial hemp production the local or international market would support, there are other reasons besides a cash-crop that Alaska farmers might want to grow hemp, but unless something changes, they won't be able to explore the possibilities.

Have a question about marijuana news or culture in Alaska? Send it to cannabis-north@alaskadispatch.com with "Highly Informed" in the subject line.

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