Proposed law could spur industrial hemp industry

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Varieties of hemp non-dairy beverages are for sale Wednesday at Island Naturals Market and Deli in Hilo.

The state’s industrial hemp pilot program could become a permanent full program should a state Senate bill pass the Legislature and be signed into law.

Senate Bill 1353 would permanently establish an industrial hemp program in Hawaii, removing certain limitations from the existing hemp pilot program.

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Sen. Russell Ruderman, one of the bill’s co-introducers, said the bill would “open up” hemp production in the state.

Hemp, which is a product of the cannabis plant, became legal to cultivate in the U.S. last year, with significant restrictions, although Hawaii state law still prohibits the crop.

SB 1353 would not itself legalize hemp production in the state — another bill in the state House would do that — but it would allow the state to develop a strong hemp industry, Ruderman said.

Much of the bill’s language reflects the existing pilot program, which began accepting applications from interested farmers in 2018. Any party that was awarded a license during the pilot program would retain their license when the permanent program is established.

The bill, however, would allow the chairperson of the state Board of Agriculture to establish limits on the amount of licenses issued and maximum acreages allowed for the remainder of the pilot program. Those limits would be removed upon the repeal of the pilot program, which would take place June 30, 2021, Ruderman said.

The bill also would establish an industrial hemp special fund to be administered by the state Department of Agriculture, and requisitions $255,000 to that fund to establish three full-time job positions in the hemp program and pay for administrative costs. Any funds remaining in an identical special fund established by the pilot program would be transferred to the new fund upon the dissolution of the pilot program.

Ruderman said the bill seems to have “universal” support. Only one testifier voiced opposition to the bill during the course of two hearings, while the remainder of testifiers voiced eager support at the prospect of a new and profitable industry for the state.

“Hemp farming will be a boon to local agriculture, providing important local jobs and renewed investment into our rural communities,” wrote Laurlyn Rego, co-director for the Hawaii Center for Food Safety.

Ruderman said he once toured a 25-acre hemp farm in Colorado that was worth more than $1 million.

“By my math, that’s almost $50,000 an acre,” Ruderman said. “There’s no reason we couldn’t do that here.”

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The bill successfully passed through all three of its Senate committees with no votes against it. It must now pass a third reading in the Senate before crossing over to the House.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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