Virginia’s hemp industry boomed after the crop became legal in 2018, but what does its future look like as recreational marijuana production is right around the corner?
Let’s get something straight here — hemp is not marijuana, and marijuana is not hemp. But they are both the same species, namely cannabis sativa. So, what’s the difference?
Scientifically, there really isn’t one, but it’s a different story in the legal realm. Hemp is classified by federal law as a variety of cannabis that contains less than 0.3% of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that causes the “high” when cannabis is consumed. Meanwhile, marijuana contains a higher concentration of THC.
Their uses are different, too. Marijuana is mainly produced for medical and recreational use, while hemp is treated more like an industrial crop. In fact, hemp has so many uses it’s impossible to name them all. Some of the most common ways the crop enters the consumer market are via health foods, organic body care, textiles, construction materials, biofuels and plastic composites.
With hemp’s great versatility, many advocates have been pushing for the crop’s legalization for years. Hemp production in the U.S. was initially restricted in 1937 by the Marijuana Tax Act, and later completely outlawed as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 during the war on drugs.
Jason Amatucci, founder of hemp rights advocacy group Virginia Hemp Coalition (VHC) established in 2012, has been fighting for the right to grow hemp since his college days in the ’90s.
“It was ridiculous [that the government was] trying to ban all sorts of hemp during the drug war and reefer madness,” Amatucci says. “I always supported hemp, but it seemed like whatever we did, we couldn’t get any traction for legalization.”
The hemp industry began to open up when President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law, establishing a hemp-growing pilot program. State departments of agriculture and universities were officially permitted to produce hemp, but for research purposes only.
Then, in 2018, President Trump signed a second farm bill that legalized hemp production at the federal level. Amatucci had a hand in both pieces of legislation, and says it was a privilege and honor to help the cause.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of help, but our grassroots coalition had a lot of great volunteers. We spent a lot of time in general assemblies, lobbying and educating.”
Although hemp production was legalized at the federal level, states are still responsible for deciding their own laws regarding cannabis production. In Virginia, the 2015 Virginia Industrial Hemp Law allowed licensed growers who were part of a university-managed research program to cultivate industrial hemp. Amatucci, who also worked to pass the bill, says the Hemp Law “broke the dam wide open” for progression of the hemp industry.
But it wasn’t until July 1 of this year that hemp production was fully legalized in the state. Now, anyone who hasn’t been convicted of a drug felony in the last 10 years can sign up for a license through the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), which oversees Virginia’s hemp industry in an official capacity.
As of July 31, there are 876 registered industrial hemp growers, 290 registered industrial hemp processors and 135 registered industrial hemp dealers in the state of Virginia, according to data obtained from VDACS.
Erin Williams, who serves as the industrial hemp program manager at VDACS, says that prior to the 2014 Farm Bill, the industrial hemp conversation was fixated on fiber and grain varieties. Now, she says the focus has shifted to the floral variety that Virginia hemp farmers grow.
These floral strains are mainly used in the production of cannabinoid (CBD) products, which come in all sorts of forms including gummies, oils and salves. Although the FDA has yet to approve them, CBD products are fully legal. CBD is often consumed to relieve a variety of medical conditions or symptoms including anxiety and chronic pain.
Dan Porterfield, the account manager of VCNaturalz, a hemp farm and CBD producer based in the Shenandoah Valley, says he hopes the FDA recognizes and regulates CBD products so consumers know exactly what they’re buying.
“Right now, there isn’t a regulation that requires lab reports — it’s more due diligence on the CBD company itself,” he says. “That’s something we already do. Every product we have has a lab test and everything is completely visible to our customers.”
Flower for the People, another Virginia-based hemp farm and hemp-product vendor, also sells CBD products. Owner Jason Blanchette says once Virginia’s recreational marijuana sales open in 2024, he’s planning to pivot toward growing cannabis with a higher concentration of THC. He believes other industrial hemp producers will do the same.
“I’m not sure how sustainable it is having a ton of hemp growers in Virginia who just want to grow hemp,” he says. “My gut tells me a lot of hemp growers got into [hemp cultivation] like we did, knowing it would be a soft transition into cannabis.”
As for the future of hemp, Amatucci says the state — and the nation — has a long way to go. Even though hemp production is legalized now, the hemp advocate says the VHC has a slew of challenges to face, such as the threat of monopolization by pharmaceutical companies.
“Our goal from day one was to have hemp treated as any other crop,” he says. “It doesn’t need any special regulation, guidance or oversight. I think one day we’ll get there, but we have to keep educating people.”
The future of the hemp industry is uncertain, but Williams says to look to other states who have both legalized hemp and marijuana production to see Virginia’s potential future.
“Colorado has the largest hemp program in the U.S.,” she says. “These industries can coexist and be successful. I don’t see any reason why Virginia would be any different.”
To learn more about Virginia’s current hemp production laws or to register to become a grower, visit the VDACS website at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/plant-industry-services-hemp.shtml.
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