Will industrial hemp find a home in the Last Frontier?
A bill pre-filed Friday by Sen. Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, seeks to make hemp an agricultural crop in Alaska. Ellis had been considering proposing an industrial hemp bill for several years, he said, and after seeing bipartisan support for hemp in the U.S. Congress' 2014 Farm Bill, he decided to introduce legislation.
Ellis said he had planned to file the bill regardless of whether Alaska's Ballot Measure 2 -- which legalized recreational marijuana use -- passed in November.
"This is industrial hemp … it's not marijuana at all," Ellis said.
Hemp is a type of cannabis plant that lacks the high levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC present in marijuana. Industrial hemp is defined as having no more than 0.3 percent THC, an "infinitesimally small amount," Ellis said.
The seeds and fibers of hemp can be used to create a wide variety of products, including paper, clothing, fuel and food. Today, the U.S. imports most of its hemp products from Canada, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
"The previous marijuana hysteria sort of cut off our farmers, and I want to see if we can get back on track … that's the conversation I want to start with this bill," Ellis said.
Under Ellis' proposal, licenses to grow, process, sell and purchase industrial hemp would be issued by the state Division of Agriculture. Regulations would be developed by the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.
"I want see if Alaska farmers can experiment with Alaska hemp … and possibly benefit from a new crop," Ellis said.
Should the bill become law, Alaska would join 19 other states that allow the production of hemp in some capacity, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But the actual scope of what would be allowed in Alaska is still up in the air due to restrictions in federal law.
A provision in the 2014 Farm Bill allows higher education institutions and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp in pilot programs, but hemp is still considered a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, and one must receive a permit from the DEA to cultivate it.
Whether Alaska would issue hemp permits to individuals, like Colorado has, or allow only the institutions laid out in the 2014 Farm Bill to grow hemp remains to be seen.
Given the conflicts with federal law, Ellis said that was "an open question" that would need to be discussed during the committee process.