By Ian Ferguson
A local woman harvested her first crop of industrial hemp September 29, a milestone for Whatcom County and the state as legislators ponder how to legalize and regulate what could become a major new industry.
With a state recommendation to grow medical marijuana, Sandy Soderberg conducted a pilot study to test how hemp would fare in the soils and growing conditions of Whatcom County. She planted approximately 50 germinated seeds on a plot of land in Birch Bay, and with little assistance the seeds grew into 7-foot plants by late September.
Hemp is closely related to marijuana with at least one important difference: it won’t get anyone high. Along with marijuana, it has been illegal to grow in the U.S. since 1938, but with the passage of I-502, hemp is now an unregulated crop in Washington.
Now that recreational marijuana has been legalized in Washington, its far less potent but just as controversial sister plant – industrial hemp – is getting more attention.
In February, the state house of representatives unanimously approved House Bill 1888, which would authorize the state department of agriculture to issue licenses to grow industrial hemp. The senate is scheduled to vote on the measure in January 2015.
The attention is not surprising – industrial hemp is a useful plant by any measure. Its fibers have been used for ropes and linens for millennia, and are now being used in a variety of building materials. Its seeds are considered a superfood, with lots of amino acids and essential fats, and its oil can be refined into biofuels. Since hemp absorbs toxins as it grows, it has been used to clean up toxic waste and radiation at sites such as Chernobyl in Russia. It is a legal crop in 30 countries.
Although it doesn’t cause intoxication when smoked or eaten, hemp has been considered a noxious weed and an illegal crop in the U.S. since 1938, because of its association with marijuana.
Shortly before hemp was made illegal, Henry Ford demonstrated the usefulness of the plant by building a car with plastic parts made partly out of hemp. The vehicle ran on ethanol from hempseed oil.
The hemp plants Soderberg grew were tall and thin, with leafy tops that were packed with seeds. Although the leaves were very similar to those of marijuana plants, the resemblance ended there; marijuana is shorter and bushier, with flowering buds and a distinct smell.
“You can see how tall and thin these are,” Soderberg said. “In an ideal agricultural application, they would be planted close together in rows like corn.”
After harvesting the plants, Soderberg bagged and numbered samples from each plant to be sent to a lab for testing.
Soderberg’s experience and observations growing hemp will come in handy in her role as an advisor to the legislature, as it begins building a regulatory framework for hemp production in Washington.
“Zoning is one of the many things we need to study,” Soderberg said. “If hemp is grown too close to a recreational marijuana growing operation, it could present an issue with cross-pollination.”
While industrial hemp has many different varieties, Soderberg said the ideal variety for a viable industry in Washington would be tall, with lots of seeds.
“You would want to grow them tall for the fibers but with lots of food-grade seeds for hempseed oil. Even better would be a tri-crop – a variety that could be used for the fibers and the seeds but that also has cannabidiol, which is used for medicine production,” Soderberg said.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive ingredient that has increasingly been shown to be effective in the treatment of epilepsy and other disorders of the nervous system.
A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in March attempted to determine why CBD is an effective anticonvulsant: “CBD is a non-psychoactive, well-tolerated, anticonvulsant plant cannabinoid, although its mechanism(s) of seizure suppression remains unknown.” (Hill, Jones, Smith, Hill, Williams, Stephens and Whalley.)
Hemp is also useful for phytoremediation, a process by which green plants absorb toxins from the soil and accumulate them in their tissues, rendering them harmless.
“With its phytoremediation capabilities, hemp is a very useful barrier crop and could be planted between heavy industry and streams to prevent toxins from running into the water supply,” Soderberg said.
With all its potential, hemp has legislators excited about creating job growth in Washington. Soderberg said a common sense approach would help get the industry going.
“We need to bring farmers and students together to begin studying this in detail, and we need to educate the public so the difference between this plant and marijuana is very clear,” she said.