Hemp could throw a rope to Wyoming Ag industry


Despite the efforts of two state senators to scuttle efforts to grow hemp in Wyoming, cash-strapped farmers and people afflicted with pain have some new hope for relief.

Hemp — the non-intoxicating agricultural version of cannabis — was legalized by Congress in December in the 2018 Farm Bill.

But it took the passage of House Bill 171 – Hemp, cannabidiol and other controlled substance regulation to extend the new possibilities to Wyoming.

Hemp, as proponents of the bill stressed, is not marijuana, which lawmakers have always treated like the devil weed and a “gateway” drug. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. Once Gov. Mark Gordon puts his signature to HB71, cannabis plants with a THC content of no more than .3 percent will be considered hemp and legal to produce, process and possess in the state with the appropriate license.

Proponents of the bill report farmers throughout Wyoming are anxious to get hemp seed into the ground this year. The plant is well-suited for growing in our climate, is in demand and has scores of industrial uses. Plus, people with a variety of diseases and medical conditions — cancer, epilepsy, Lyme disease, glaucoma, auto-immune disorders, arthritis and many others — would be able to use the cannabidiol or CBD oils that come from hemp to ease their pain.

Still, there’s a catch to getting the hemp industry off the ground here, and it’s a big one: If Wyoming wants primacy over the hemp industry instead of letting it be regulated by the federal government, it must have a state plan approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That plan will not fly unless the state can prove to the agency it has the testing equipment and personnel resources to test hemp’s THC content.

House Bill 171, sponsored by Rep. Bunky Loucks, directs the state Department of Agriculture to develop a plan within 30 days. It also appropriates $315,000 to buy the equipment and fund the staff that’s required to get USDA approval.

The entire bill was almost scuttled when, after winning the unanimous approval of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it went to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration of funding the measure.

It ran into deep trouble when Sens. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) removed the funding by placing unwieldy restrictions on the process. 

Hicks and Kinskey successfully passed amendments that would keep the state from buying the testing equipment or paying for random inspections. Hicks wanted Wyoming to contract with Colorado to do the testing. Kinskey was looking out for his home county’s interest when he suggested that a private lab in Sheridan and others might be interested in getting a state contract for the work.

The amendments put Department of Agriculture Director Doug Miyamoto in an untenable position. He would have to check with Colorado officials to see if they could test Wyoming hemp, but he already knew the answer.

Miyamoto had been asked by Hicks two years ago to make the same inquiry. He was told that Colorado will not test hemp in the same lab where it routinely tests massive quantities of marijuana, for fear of cross-contamination.

Another Colorado state lab could test for hemp, Miyamoto learned, but the results of each sample would take four to six weeks to be sent to Wyoming. The director didn’t have any hope that the USDA would approve such an ineffective testing method, but he said he would prepare and submit a plan as directed, despite the obvious futility of the effort.

Hicks claimed farmers would not buy hemp seed to plant without contracts to purchase the crop, and they would not pay the $750 state license fee until the seed was in the ground. But no actual farmers testified with such concerns. Those fees would help the state pay for the testing program and make it self-sustaining over a short period.

A frustrated Loucks told the committee there was widespread interest in growing and processing hemp. In fact, he said 10 companies have stated they plan to build plants in Wyoming if the bill passed.

Earlier, Jeffrey Loeffler, owner of Loeffler Ag Services, told the House Agriculture Committee his company plans to build a $5 million processing plant. It will donate seeds to the University of Wyoming for research to determine best hemp growing practices in the state.

“I don’t want to go to Nebraska to see how they do it,” he said. “We can do it all right here.”

Josh Easley has been growing industrial hemp on his Colorado farm for four years. The Wyoming native said he’s been “amassing” hemp seeds and clones on the Colorado side of the border ready to move them to his home state and start a new business.

“Let’s get going and start growing,” Easley eagerly told legislators.

When the bill was discussed in the Senate’s Committee of the Whole last Thursday, Hicks maintained the Appropriations committee’s amendment didn’t delay or stop the program at all.

But Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Brian Boner (R-Douglas) said one of the reasons for the state to submit a plan to regulate hemp is the state could do it more quickly. The USDA informed all state agriculture directors two weeks ago it would take at least a year, and maybe two years, to get a federal testing program in place.

“Without the appropriation, there’s no point in having the bill,” Boner said. “You may just as well have the federal government do it if we’re going to delay and drag our feet.”

The Senate had been in this position before, in 2017. It passed another Loucks-sponsored bill then to allow industrial hemp to be grown in Wyoming, but it removed all the funding and made it useless.

But not this time. The Senate didn’t listen to Hicks and Kinskey and kept the funding, which should allow Miyamoto to submit a plan to the feds that will pass muster and give Wyoming farmers time to plant their hemp seeds this year. Meanwhile, hemp processing companies can start planning their state operations with the confidence there actually will be a hemp industry here after two years of delays.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s actions amazed me. Run by Chairman Sen. Eli Bebout (R-Riverton), the committee watches state spending like a hawk, which isn’t a bad thing at all, if it makes good decisions.

Bebout reminded Hicks during the HB171 hearing the bill was worthless without the one-time funding, but he still voted for the amendment.

How can politicians who constantly preach that the state is much better at running programs than the federal government argue that Wyoming should let the USDA administer our hemp industry? Why would they possibly contend, with straight faces, it’s better to have Colorado test Wyoming hemp or leave it to small private laboratories than to make a small, one-time purchase of the necessary lab equipment?

This time, fortunately, it didn’t work. Because of that correct decision by the Senate and the hard work of Loucks and other hemp supporters in the House, Wyoming should soon have an industry that has the potential to thrive. It will give farmers another hardy crop to plant, and companies will be able to process hemp into fiber, food, CBD and a host of other products that can be sold throughout the world.

Millions of dollars will flow through the state’s economy. It’s a good day for Wyoming. But it almost didn’t happen.

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