Back in business

Hemp emerges from 81 years of illegality

UNR scientist Glenn Miller, left, poses with California farmers Dave Roberti, Jane Roberti, Kevin Moats and Erica Kay.

UNR scientist Glenn Miller, left, poses with California farmers Dave Roberti, Jane Roberti, Kevin Moats and Erica Kay.


Hemp, classified by the federal government as a Schedule One controlled substance, is about to become a legal product again. It was an industry until 1937, when the Marihuana Tax Act—backed by the lumber and liquor industries—was enacted by Congress, using heavy taxation to make hemp and cannabis, in effect, illegal. It became actually illegal in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act.

Hemp is distinguished legally from cannabis by a limit—it cannot contain more than 0.3 percent of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). That limit will remain in place, and plants exceeding that level would be considered cannabis, which is still illegal under federal law.

Congress has passed the 2018 Farm Bill that contains language lifting the listing of hemp as a controlled substance and sent it to the White House for signature, which is expected.

The language of the hemp legislation originated with a familiar figure—Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “Last year alone, Kentucky hemp recorded more than $16 million in product sales through the state pilot program I previously secured, demonstrating that hemp holds great potential for the future of Kentucky agriculture,” McConnell said in a prepared statement. But he still kept one politically protective foot in the drug warrior’s space: “My Hemp Farming Act as included in the Farm Bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”

Section 10113 of the new law says state departments of agriculture will consult with governors and chief state law enforcement officers to write plans for local cultivation. Those plans must be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A state’s plan to license and regulate hemp can only commence once the USDA approves that state’s plan.

However, states will not be able to defeat the purpose of the legislation by failing to write a plan. There is no opt-out, as exists in Nevada’s marijuana law under which some counties have declined to make marijuana legal. If a state does not write a plan, the federal government will administer its program instead of state officials.

Thus, hemp farmers—unlike those who grow hay or corn—will have to be registered, licensed and regulated.

State industrial hemp program manager Ashley Jeppson said the state will start work on a plan as soon as they get the language of federal regulations.

Hemp products have been common for many years. Hemp, like marijuana, is amazingly versatile, used in products like construction materials, batteries and lip balm. Their availability has depended on a lot of things. Some states repealed prohibitions under state laws and the federal government sometimes more or less looked the other way. Nevada has a pilot program for growing hemp under the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which reported earlier this year that there are 110 registered farmers growing hemp on about 2,000 acres. That does not count indoor growing, which is substantial—150,000 square feet.

In Pahrump, the measure is a local story, with 16 local growers. In July, Sierra Gold Hemp issued a press release datelined from Pahrump: “Sierra Gold Hemp (“SGH”), announces their successful expansion into Colorado and Nevada. SGH is planting and developing additional acreage for cultivation throughout the 2018 season—totaling 2,557+ acres in Nevada, in addition to their current genetics research facilities in Colorado.”

That acreage number exceeds what the NDOA later announced for all registered farmers. We made an inquiry to NDOA and were told that Sierra Gold is “not actually a registered grower” in Nevada, so there may be news still to come on that angle.

Other communities where growing is happening include Orvada, Winnemucca, McDermitt, Tonopah and Baker.

University of Nevada, Reno agriculture professor Glenn Miller has been assisting the Roberti family, in need of a new crop, in California’s Sierra Valley. “Dairy is collapsing,” Dave Roberti told Plumas News. “We are very limited in what else we can grow up here.”

The family could grow hemp only if a research university were part of the experiment. “We were fortunate in partnering with University of Nevada, Reno,” family member Jay Gant told KXTV in Sacramento. (The operation got a lot of news coverage.)

The Robertis planted hemp where alfalfa previously grew. The water table has been falling, and alfalfa is relatively water-hungry. As for hemp—“Oh, it takes less water. Yes, absolutely,” Miller told us. The crop is watered by drip.

All of this applies to Nevada, he said. “The water table has dropped a hundred feet or so in the Eureka region, and that would be a place that would be a candidate for growing hemp.”

The Robertis had a so-so first crop, and Miller said they treated the year as a learning time. It was the same for Miller, who is particularly interested in pests and predators that threaten crops.

“We watched as the competition of weeds took over, and it was clear that the crop was not going to be as good as they had originally anticipated.”

Then there were antelopes.

“Who would ever have imagined that the antelope could have been a pest?”

He said NDOA has been supportive of research and of hemp growers and he would expect that to continue under a state plan.

The Robertis are planning another year using the lessons of the first.

Businesses other than farms will also have an easier time of it with the new law. Now that hemp is no longer a controlled substance, banks have no basis for refusing service, credit card companies will have no reason not to process payments, advertising will be on a par with detergents and cars, and there will be no reason for Facebook or Instagram to take down ads.

It will remove any legal basis for raids of businesses that sell or advertise goods associated with hemp. State law will also become less threatening to businesses. Nevada Revised Statute 453.566 reads, “Any person who uses, or possesses with intent to use, drug paraphernalia to plant, propagate, cultivate, grow, harvest, manufacture, compound, convert, produce, prepare, test, analyze, pack, repack, store, contain, conceal, ingest, inhale or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance in violation of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor” (emphasis added).

Hemp will no longer be a controlled substance. N.R.S. 453.564, dealing with “unlawful” advertising, does not reference controlled substances, but the statute itself may now be repealed since the state no longer has a stake in enforcing it.