Concerns remain about new Hawaii hemp law

  • Hemp plants. (North Dakota Department of Agriculture)

Hawaii will adopt a federal industrial hemp production program at the end of this month, signalling the end of the state’s two-year-long Industrial Hemp Pilot Program.

However, the changing programs have hemp farmers worried, with concerns that growing hemp will no longer be economically viable under the federal program.


Thanks to a bill passed by the state Legislature during the last session and signed into law by Gov. David Ige, the state legalized the growth of hemp throughout the state via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hemp production program. But while this bill ostensibly removed roadblocks for farmers seeking a license to grow hemp, farmers under the pilot program believe the USDA program is significantly more restrictive.

“I know some farmers are just waiting to see what happens before they apply at all,” said Gail Baber, a Big Island hemp grower who was one of the first in the state to be licensed through the pilot program.

While Shelley Choy, coordinator of the pilot program, said the federal program has much less stringent requirements for applications — being a program for commercial growers, rather than a research program as the pilot program is — Baber said the one-size-fits-all nature of the federal program has led to some serious concerns with how the program will be enforced.

“For one thing, if any portion of your crop tests too high for THC (the main intoxicating ingredient in cannabis), then the third time that happens, you lose your license,” Baber said. “For a lot of us, that’s way too much of a risk.”

Baber added that, under the pilot program, growers could mulch their noncompliant crops. Under the USDA program, growers will have to pay the Drug Enforcement Administration to retrieve the noncompliant crops and haul them away, which Baber said would be extremely cost-prohibitive for growers on Hawaii Island.

The USDA program also does not include any protections for local farmers, Baber said, which could allow farmers with no affiliation with Hawaii to buy Hawaii farmland to grow hemp — and therefore cash in on the prestige of a “made in Hawaii” tag — without any money returning to the state.

“I worry that it sets us up for hemp to be just a resource that is extracted from Hawaii,” Baber said.

While Choy was not incorrect about the looser restrictions of the new program — the USDA program has much less strict requirements about farmers’ means and the provenance and varietals of hemp used — the enforcement issues have led growers throughout the country to demand to remain in their states’ pilot programs for the time being.

“It felt like we had one hand tied behind our back before, and now it feels like we have both hands tied,” Baber said.

Unfortunately, while Congress extended the deadlines for states to continue their pilot programs earlier this year, Hawaii has not done so, and the state bill that would have established a bespoke hemp program for the state was largely gutted to replace that program with the USDA’s generic program.

Baber said Hawaii growers will have to wait until the 2021 legislative session to try to craft a more Hawaii-appropriate program, and added that she believes a significant proportion of growers are confused about the implications of the new program.

Choy agreed with the latter sentiment, saying she believes many growers under the pilot program are still unaware that they will not be grandfathered into the USDA program, and that they will have to reapply to keep their licenses.

Applications for the USDA program can be found at


USDA program licenses will take effect Nov. 1.

Email Michael Brestovansky at

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