State legislation could kick-start hemp production

Powell area growers interested in crop

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Wyoming farmers may soon have the opportunity to grow a new crop.

A bill making its way through the state Legislature would, at long last, allow producers to plant, harvest and process industrial hemp.

“It’s going to give our farmers an opportunity to grow a crop that they can set their own prices with,” Rep. Bunky Loucks, R-Casper, said on the House floor. Loucks is the lead sponsor of House Bill 171, also known as the Hemp Freedom Bill.

He called it “a great opportunity for the state,” saying that “literally hundreds of farmers are interested” in hemp and that a half-dozen organizations are interested in building processing facilities in Wyoming.

Loucks specifically mentioned a Powell area group that wants to produce hemp “from the field to the table.”

Hemp was a topic of interest among some of the growers who attended the Heart Mountain Irrigation District’s annual meeting last week.

Mike Forman of Powell, the president of the Wyoming Crop Improvement Association, said he assumes the popular bill will pass the Legislature.

In advancing to the Senate, “it passed out of the House 60-0, which is something that almost never happens,” Forman said.

Local Reps. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, David Northrup, R-Powell, and Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, are co-sponsors of HB 171, along with Sens. Hank Coe, R-Cody and R.J. Kost, R-Powell. Powell Economic Partnership Executive Director Christine Bekes also lobbied for the bill in Cheyenne last week.

Hemp can be used in a host of ways, including as a food, forage, fabric or medication; advocates say it could prove more profitable for farmers than other crops.

However, it’s also more controversial than commodities like sugar beets, barley or beans — until recently, the federal government generally considered hemp to be an illegal controlled substance. That’s because hemp is a variation of the same plant (cannabis sativa) that produces marijuana. The key difference is that hemp contains very low levels of the plant’s main psychoactive constituent, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In other words, rather than getting a high, “the only thing you get from smoking that stuff [hemp] is a burnt tongue,” one lawmaker quipped last year.

HB 171 specifically says that all hemp grown in the state must have a THC content of no more than 0.3 percent. For comparison, strains of marijuana often have more than 30 times that amount of THC.

Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt, the president of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, said law enforcement does not oppose the legislation, but wants to make sure it’s done right. For example, Eckerdt said the bill should allow for ways to verify that someone isn’t growing or selling marijuana; he cited concern with a provision that says the state can only inspect a grower once a year. The chief also wants to be sure there aren’t opportunities for people possessing or transporting marijuana to get off the hook by claiming they thought it was hemp.

“Don’t leave loopholes,” Eckerdt said of his position.

The bill does say that, in order to receive a license to grow hemp, the people involved in the operation can’t have been convicted of a felony controlled substance violation within the last 10 years.

Lawmakers passed a law in 2017 that allowed the state to begin researching hemp. However, they didn’t provide any funding for the testing equipment that the Wyoming Department of Agriculture says it needs to check a crop’s THC content. Rep. Northrup led an effort last year to amend the state’s budget and buy the equipment.

“… if we don’t get going this year, we’ll lose the growing season and it will be another year before we get this going,” Northrup warned last year. In a down farm economy, he said the addition of hemp would be “great.”

However, the funding ultimately didn’t make it in the budget and there was little movement on the issue.

Things changed in December, though, when Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the $867 billion Farm Bill. Provisions of the bill effectively legalized hemp, allowing hemp-derived products to be transported across state lines for commercial purposes and removing restrictions on their sale and possession — as long as THC levels remain below 0.3 percent.

That’s what spurred HB 171 this session, which would create a set of rules for growing hemp in Wyoming.

“If we don’t pass this bill, our folks can still grow hemp, but they do it under the federal regulations, not state regulations,” Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, explained to his colleagues. “So if we want to have control closer to home, and impact how this is actually done in our state, we have to do it.”

Barlow added that, in comparison to the federal government, the state could speed up the permitting process by months — though Wyoming will still have to wait for initial federal approval.

“If we can do this by May 1, we’ll have folks be able to produce this plant this year, in the ground or in greenhouses,” he said.

The version of the bill that the House passed on to the Senate includes $120,000 of annual funding and a one-time appropriation of $315,000 to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. That’s meant to allow the department to buy the needed laboratory supplies and equipment and to hire and train staff to get and keep the hemp program up and running.

As lawmakers in the House debated whether to approve the testing equipment, Rep. Stan Blake, D-Green River, urged his colleagues to support it.

“We’ve been dragging our feet long enough on this,” Blake said, adding, “This small amount here could lead to thousands, millions of dollars of tax money coming in the future, so let’s do it.”

For a year-long license to grow hemp, licensees would be charged $750, and nonprofit and educational organizations $500.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was set to consider the measure on Wednesday.

(Tribune Staff Writer Mark Davis contributed to this report.)

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