It is now legal to grow industrial hemp in Virginia — but only for some.
A new law went into effect July 1 allowing public universities to grow industrial hemp for research in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Private farms can grow hemp only with a license from the state and a written agreement with a participating university.
Hemp has been prohibited in the U.S. since the 1930s due to its association with marijuana.
Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and James Madison University submitted applications to begin hemp research to the agriculture department, which will review them in coming months.
Spokeswoman Elaine Lindholm said the agriculture department will not necessarily approve all three schools. The law does not require a minimum or maximum number of participating schools.
If approved, Virginia State University would grow hemp on its campus. Its College of Agriculture would study varieties of hemp that grow best in Virginia, agronomic practices, supply requirements and potential pest problems, said Wondi Mersie, associate dean of the college and director of research.
Saied Mostaghimi, associate dean for research and graduate studies in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said a controlled research climate is crucial to understanding the viability of a hemp industry in Virginia.
“We need to be looking at the process from the beginning to the end — all the costs involved to get the seeds, to plant it, harvest it, fertilize it, and see what the potential for revenue is.”
The research will focus on the best varieties of hemp to grow in Virginia, ways to harvest it efficiently, and market potential.
“We’ve lost a lot of time in the last 60 to 70 years. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do in terms of what grows best where,” said Del. Joseph R. Yost, R-Giles, the bill’s sponsor. “If we start down that road, we’d not only have individuals growing it, but we’ll have an entire industry growing around it.”
The Congressional Research Service estimates hemp is used in 25,000 products across nine industries, from the lining of a BMW electric car to hand lotion to a lightweight concrete substitute, hempcrete. Its fibers are a stronger and lighter substitute for wood, and it also can be used for paper and clothing. Oil from hemp seeds can be used in food or converted into plastic and biodiesel fuel.
Mersie said the varieties of hemp that were grown in Virginia a century ago are not around anymore, so universities will study which seeds grow best and how to farm the plant most effectively.
The federal Farm Bill in 2014 legalized growing industrial hemp for institutional research, but many states still prohibit it. Virginia is the 22nd state to legalize research-based hemp cultivation.
A Congressional Research Service report in February estimated sales of products that contain hemp in the U.S. were about $580 million annually. All the hemp is imported as a raw material or in products. It is produced commercially in more than 30 countries.
Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition director Jason Amatucci said the new state law is a step forward, but not enough. “We need to have a bill that specifically states it’s legal to grow hemp for commercial purposes, and takes it off the definition of marijuana.”
But the Drug Enforcement Agency classifies hemp and marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, meaning it is highly addictive and has no accepted medicinal value. Hemp and marijuana are varieties of the cannabis plant; however, they grow differently, and hemp has negligible psychoactive properties.
That DEA classification leads to myriad obstacles for the hemp industry.
“I don’t think that’s really the debate anymore. It’s just a common misconception for a lot of folks. … Unfortunately, while it’s not marijuana, it comes from the same family,” Yost said.
Banks, investors and insurers cannot work with hemp growers while it is federally prohibited. And in order to purchase hemp seeds, state agriculture departments need to secure a permit from the DEA.
DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno said the Food and Drug Administration, not the DEA, determines whether something has medicinal uses.
“Until the FDA says that something is medicine, we can’t take it out of Schedule 1 and put it in the medical schedules.”
The Industrial Hemp Farming Act has been reintroduced to Congress this year. It would define industrial hemp separately from marijuana. If passed, hemp would be removed from the Controlled Substances Act.