Hemp Issue Brings General Assembly Together

Feb 4, 2015

When it comes to food and farming, old is new these days; it's hard to find a seed catalog that isn't filled with heirloom crops that are all the rage again.

There's one once-important Virginia plant, though, that needs an OK from the General Assembly before it comes back. WMRA's Andrew Jenner has the latest on the process.

Guess what just won the unanimous approval of the fractious Virginia House of Delegates? Hemp. It’s a plant – and a legislative issue – near and dear to the heart of Chase Milner, Shenandoah Valley regional director of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.

CHASE MILNER: The Virginia Industrial Hemp Farming Act is for the farmers, it’s for the people to be able to grow one of Virginia’s oldest crops.

After a day of successful day of lobbying for the bill, Milner is in high spirits.

MILNER: We just received a unanimous vote in the Senate Agriculture Committee this afternoon.

If this act passes, this means that we’re going to be able to bring new jobs, new agriculture, textile manufacturing, transportation jobs back to Virginia with one of our oldest, most resilient heirloom crops.

But why is this a matter for state lawmakers in the first place?

MILNER: What we’re trying to do is show that this is rope, this is soap. It’s not dope.

Hemp was a casualty of the War on Drugs. It’s been listed for decades under the Controlled Substances Act. That’s because it and marijuana are different varieties of the same species, Cannabis sativa. The key distinction is that hemp only has trace amounts of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. So while hemp’s no good for smoking, it’s great for thousands of other things and can end up anywhere from the grocery store aisle to the factory assembly line.

JASON AMATUCCI: This is already turn-key. These products are already sold to car manufacturers. Right now we have hemp panels being put into cars. So this isn’t like a futuristic thing. This is happening now.

Jason Amatucci is the founder of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition, and frames the hemp bill in economic terms.

AMATUCCI: I’d say Virginia is probably the strongest place to do business for hemp in America. It’s a great place to grow it. We’ve got great farmland to grow this. And we are also poised because of our port and we can export for the global market.

There’s federal law to consider, though, and it currently only allows hemp to be grown for research. Practically speaking, that means the hemp bill moving through the General Assembly now would only allow for research plots to be grown in Virginia. But there’s momentum in Congress to fully re-legalize hemp as a cash crop for American farmers. Once that happens, industrial hemp may be coming soon to a Virginia farm field near you. Lindsay Reames of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation – that’s the state’s biggest agricultural interest group – says that’s a good thing.

REAMES: We have had a policy for a number of years supporting any new crops for the state and we see this as another opportunity for our farmers to cultivate new crops on their land.

It’s one of those rare issues on which pretty much everyone in Richmond seems to agree, and as of Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 4, the full Senate approved its version of the Virginia Industrial Hemp Farming Act.  Hemp was so important in colonial times that the General Assembly actually mandated growing it in the 17th century. Nearly 400 years later, it looks like the prodigal hemp is about to be welcomed back into the good graces of the law.th century. Nearly 400 years later, it looks like the prodigal hemp is about to be welcomed back into the good graces of the law.