Opinion editorial by Rep. Matt Shea: It’s time for Washington to embrace industrial hemp

From the beginning of our nation’s history until the 1950s, industrial hemp was grown in the United States. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp. Benjamin Franklin owned one of America’s first paper mills, which processed hemp. The Declaration of Independence was signed on hemp paper. Hemp was used as canvas for ship sails and even for covered wagons. At one time, Washington state was one of the largest producers and exporters of industrial hemp in the world.

In the early 1950s, however, the legal status of industrial hemp changed when it was classified a dangerous drug, in the same category as marijuana.

The fact is these plants are not the same. Industrial hemp typically contains less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), compared to 25 percent of the THC drug in recreational and medical marijuana. However, the two plants have long been confused as one, shutting down an industry for more than 60 years in the United States and allowing other countries, including neighbor Canada, to develop a lucrative hemp industry to meet international fiber demands.

In recent years, there’s been a new debate in state legislatures emerging over the economic and environmental benefits of industrial hemp and the possibility of a comeback of this industry. More and more states have realized they are missing out on a huge economic opportunity, and they have begun to reclassify hemp separate from marijuana for legal growth of the hemp plant.

For the past three years, I’ve sponsored legislation seeking the legalization of growing industrial hemp in Washington state, the latest through House Bill 1552. It is estimated that some 25,000 products can be made from industrialized hemp. Think of the thousands of jobs that could be created in Washington, not only in agriculture, but also in industries like manufacturing and pulp and paper. This means jobs in rural southwest and northeast Washington, which have seen the logging industry decimated in recent decades.

Industrial hemp can be used as a raw material for construction projects, including hempcrete, a mold- and fire-resistant building material with an insulation rating three times that of normal building materials. Hemp can also be used for textiles, clothing and carpeting. Hemp plastic is said to be nearly as strong as steel and could even be used for composite parts in cars and airplanes, which could further boost our state’s aerospace industry.  In each case, industrial hemp is generally cheaper and more durable than existing alternatives.

Hemp also has numerous environmental benefits, helping to reduce reliance on petroleum-based products, creating less long-term build-up of carbon, and being more naturally-resistant to pests, which means less use of agricultural pesticides.

A growing market exists for Omega-3 rich hemp seed and oil products, including snack foods, body care and supplements, many of which are already available in stores throughout Washington.  The problem is that raw hemp is imported from countries like Canada for the manufacture of these products.

Unfortunately, laws in the U.S. have deprived our farmers and the public from the economic and environmental benefits stemming from these new markets. That’s why I have been working hard to change that in Washington state.

During the 2016 regular session, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 6206, which would have created a limited opening of growing industrial hemp in Washington. The proposal was to direct the Washington State Department of Agriculture to establish an industrial hemp research, licensing and seed certification program, and then select growers whose demonstration plots will advance the research program. The measure would have also directed Washington State University to study the feasibility of industrial hemp production in our state and report its findings to the Legislature in 2017. Unfortunately, this measure was one of 27 vetoed at the end of the regular session by Gov. Jay Inslee because the Legislature had not yet passed a supplemental operating budget.

While I was disappointed the bill would have delayed actual hemp growth by nearly two years, I felt it was at least a foot in the door for Washington state. By contrast, my bill would have legalized and ensured the growth of industrial hemp in Washington state this summer, giving us a wider ability to take advantage of existing markets while they are still competitive.  Other states, such as Colorado and Kentucky, are already far ahead of Washington in this regard.

We nearly cracked open the door, only to be delayed by a veto that has nothing to do with the merit of the bill. While this veto is a road bump, it is not a road block. Washington has an incredible opportunity before us — to create a better economy through a new industry filled with thousands of new jobs. Many of my legislative colleagues and I are determined to take action as soon we can so our state can re-establish itself once again as a major hemp producer. It’s time for Washington to embrace this new economic opportunity and reap the benefits of growing industrial hemp.

Editor’s note: Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, serves the 4th Legislative District. He is the ranking Republican on the House Environment Committee and also serves as assistant floor leader for House Republicans.

State Representative Matt Shea, 4th Legislative District
427A Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7984 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000