It's a second green rush. Mirroring the flood of would-be entrepreneurs after Alaskans voted to legalize the possession, cultivation, use and sale of marijuana in 2014, potential growers have filed en masse to participate in a pilot project for commercial hemp cultivation. It's going to be a big job for state employees tasked with sorting through the applications, but it's a big plus for the state's economy.
In an odd piece of trivia many Alaskans may not have known, industrial hemp farming wasn't addressed by marijuana legalization. The plant, a low-THC variant of marijuana, was widely used for rope, textiles and other goods before it was made federally illegal in 1937. In recent years, states have begun to legalize it piecemeal; Alaska was the 35th to do so. Hemp legalization on a national level may be on the horizon; Rep. Don Young has supported U.S. House efforts to legalize industrial hemp, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself sponsored a Senate bill that would do the same in April.
There are considerable potential benefits for Alaska from the growing of industrial hemp. Although not nearly as profitable on a per-plant basis as marijuana, it could be a shot in the arm for Alaska's agricultural and manufacturing industries, which have historically shown promise but have never taken flight the way proponents of state self-sufficiency would hope. The state still imports 95 percent of the food Alaskans consume. It's easy to see how hemp farming could help provide a more stable bottom line for local farms, some of which have sought marijuana cultivation licenses for the same purpose.
There's certainly ample interest in the nascent industry. After the Legislature overwhelming passed a bill legalizing industrial hemp in February and Gov. Bill Walker signed it into law in April (with a pen made partially of hemp, of course), the state opened applications for a pilot program to help determine regulations for growing hemp and producing other related goods such as CBD oil. Officials were expecting a few dozen interested participants; they've heard from more than 500. Paring that list down and determining who gets to participate in the program will be difficult, and the state should take great care to make sure it abides by a fair and transparent process in doing do. But it's hard to say that a tremendous surge of interest in a field that would help Alaska produce more of its goods locally is a bad thing.
Hemp may not ever be a blockbuster industry for Alaska. To be clear, even backers of the crop don't expect it to boom right away, forecasting three or four years before regulations are in place and hemp can be sold. But every dollar from the sale of hemp grown in the state is a dollar that stays here instead of going Outside. Every job from hemp cultivation or manufacturing is a job that didn't exist before. Every rope, piece of clothing or sack of hempcrete produced and sold here is a step toward growing and diversifying an economy that has long been in need of both. If hemp cultivation can help us down that path, that's a win for Alaska.
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