By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
BOISE – A bill that would make it legal to grow and process hemp in Idaho will be redrafted and reintroduced in the Idaho Legislature.
The clock is ticking on the 2019 Idaho legislative session – the legislature convened in early January and typically wraps up in late March or early April – and the effort to pass a bill this year that legalizes industrial hemp production in Idaho is now facing a time constraint.
A couple dozen people testified in favor of a hemp legalization bill during a Feb. 18 public hearing – only one person testified against it – but members of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee held off immediately voting on the bill at the request of law enforcement officials and prosecutors.
Now, House Bill 122, the Hemp Research and Development Act, will be revamped and resubmitted, said Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican rancher from Midvale and chairwoman of the ag committee.
The redrafted bill will address some concerns that were not brought up during the public hearing, she said.
Some farm groups have supported the hemp bill while some law enforcement entities have opposed it.
Hemp plants are the same species as marijuana but industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive compound that gets marijuana users high.
“Hemp doesn’t get you high,” said Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, HB 122’s co-sponsor. Troy and others who testified in favor of the bill made it clear they do not support legalizing marijuana in Idaho.
Hemp is used in more than 20,000 products that have been sold legally in the United States for decades but until recently, it has not been legal to grow and process hemp domestically. The 2018 farm bill, signed into law by President Trump in December, changes that and classifies hemp as a regular agricultural crop.
However, the farm bill’s hemp provisions left it up to states to determine how to handle hemp production. In Idaho, it is currently illegal to grow and process hemp and state law considers hemp with any THC the same thing as marijuana.
HB 122 would change that and the people who testified during the public hearing told lawmakers that legalizing hemp in Idaho could benefit Gem State farmers.
They also said that many other states have already legalized hemp production and, unless Idaho quickly legalizes the crop, Idaho producers will fall behind their counterparts in those states when it comes to producing that crop.
“There is an incredible financial potential for farmers in Idaho,” said Hari Heath, who has formed an organization called Inland Hemp Solutions that intends to consult with farmers who want to grow hemp.
Heath and others who testified said hemp could bring a farmer about $40,000 per acre in gross revenue but some lawmakers questioned those claims, with one calling them “borderline propaganda.”
Heath said there will be about a two- to three-year window where farmers who grow hemp can make that much money off the crop, before the market catches up and supply matches demand.
“The federal farm bill has changed the game. The market is about to explode,” he said, adding, “The market will come down naturally in the course of time.”
Having the opportunity to grow hemp could provide Idaho farmers a boost, said Phil Haunschild, a senior policy analyst with the Idaho Freedom Foundation.
“As the hemp market in the U.S. grows, we ought to give our Idaho farmers a chunk of that market,” he said.
Greg Willison, a farmer from New Plymouth in southwestern Idaho, said he raised a crop of hemp with his son in Oregon on five acres. That crop, which was extracted for CBD (cannabidiol) oil, would be worth about $100,000 per acre today, he said.
He said because of southwestern Idaho’s reputation as one of the world’s main seed producing regions, Gem State farmers could excel in hemp seed production.
“If this bill passes, I want to get involved … in the seed end of it,” he said. “Seed is really where I think we can make some good money.”
Testifying in favor of hemp legalization, Chyla Wilson of Idaho Farm Bureau Federation made it clear IFBF opposes marijuana legalization.
She said HB 122 would allow “for more diversity and opportunities for Idaho farmers and give them the ability to do their own research and determine if hemp is viable for their individual operations. But before they can make that decision, they need the option. As of right now, there are a lot of commodity prices that are down and this option could provide a bright sport for farmers.”
The Idaho Sheriffs’ Association opposed HB 122.
In a news release, Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, president of the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, said the introduction of industrial hemp in Idaho “without proper safeguards in place, is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent with growing marijuana in Idaho.”
If hemp is to be a viable crop in Idaho, the right regulations must be put in place, Wolfinger said.
“We have the opportunity here to be preventative as we explore this potential crop,” he said. “As for House Bill 122, let’s keep it in a drawer and not let it move forward.”
If hemp legalization legislation passes this year, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture has to develop a plan to regulate hemp production and that plan has to be signed off on by the governor and state’s chief law enforcement officer. USDA would also have to approve the final plan.
Troy made it clear that no one should grow hemp in Idaho until all those steps have been accomplished.
“When this bill passes, don’t go out and plant hemp in your backyard because it’s still not going to be legal until” all those processes have been accomplished, she said.
During the public hearing, a plethora of hemp products purchased from retailers in Idaho were set out on a table.
“The U.S. imports all of the products you see here,” Troy said. “This is really a great opportunity for Idaho to be a player in the industry.”