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An Exciting First Step in PA for a Promising Product: Industrial Hemp

December 02, 2016 12:00 AM

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Last week, the Department of Agriculture unveiled the state’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Research Program. This program holds tremendous potential for leading Pennsylvania to a promising future with a promising crop that has a long history here. To realize that full potential, however, we must first implement this program successfully, and that will take time.

In July, Governor Wolf signed Act 92 into law, which along with the 2014 Farm Bill, allows Pennsylvania to join 29 other states that are growing industrial hemp. 

The passage of Act 92 and the new program we have developed are exciting first steps to reintroducing what was once an abundant cash crop for many farmers throughout colonial America, including Pennsylvania. In the mid-20th century, however, because of its association with marijuana, governments began to hinder and outlaw hemp’s production. Unlike marijuana, though, industrial hemp has no psychoactive effects, but it does have many qualities that make it an attractive agricultural commodity for a number of industries. Today, hemp is used in more than 25,000 products worldwide, and it is estimated to be at least a $600 million industry in the U.S., but those dollars are largely going to growers in other countries. 

Under the new research pilot program​, Pennsylvania will approve up to 30 projects that will help determine future opportunities for growing, cultivating and marketing industrial hemp.

Some have expressed disappointment that Pennsylvania’s program is not more robust; that the state is not allowing commercial production; that the program does not permit the production of products with cannabinoid, or CBD, oils; and that the pilot projects are limited in number and in the number of acres on which they can grow. 

Given the intensity and passion with which these advocates lobbied for years to help pass this law, we understand their view, but because of state and federal laws and statements of policy, and because these are uncharted waters for Pennsylvania, we must proceed slowly and responsibly. 

It’s important to remember that:

  • State and federal laws and policies limit hemp programs to the “purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research.” 
  • State and federal laws also make clear that pilot research programs like ours must abide by a host of other statutes governing products such as cosmetics, medicines, nutritional supplements, and animal feed among others.
  • Nothing in any law, policy statement, or otherwise allows commercial enterprises to grow hemp for “the purpose of general commercial activity.” While we hope to reach that point someday, we simply are not there yet.
  • Lastly, hemp programs in other states have started off small. Kentucky started with fewer than 20 growers and 35 acres in production its first year (we’re allowing five times as many acres to be planted in the first year), and New York began started with 10 licenses and a single grower.

We see a promising future for hemp in Pennsylvania, but getting there will take time. The guidelines we released for this first-year effort are a starting point. After we have one growing year and harvest under our belt, we’ll learn from that experience and see what changes—if any—are needed.   

Ultimately, we hope advocates realize that Pennsylvania is just as committed to the future of hemp here as they are, but if we fail to roll out this program successfully, we risk jeopardizing the future of hemp production in Pennsylvania for years to come. There is simply too much upside potential for our farmers, our state and our economy to risk letting that happen. 

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