Loudoun County will ask federal lawmakers to take the next step toward legalizing industrial hemp bay taking it off the list of controlled substances, following a vote Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) led the move. Industrial hemp has long been caught up in blanket bans of the plant, Cannabis sativa, aimed at its cousin Cannabis sativa indica, or marijuana. But industrial hemp has vanishingly low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes a high. Loudoun economic development officials and agricultural organizations—like the Virginia Farm Bureau—have pointed to the crop as potentially a boon for farmers.
But exactly what that boon will be is an open question. With rare exception for academic study, it has been illegal to cultivate hemp in Virginia since the 1930s. Loudoun farmers will have to rebuild the expertise to get the most from the crop.
“Because of the longstanding prohibition on industrial hemp, we can’t say with a lot of certainty what the economic impact of legalization would be,” said county project manager David Street. “However, the Department of Economic Development has indicated in this item that the outlook for industrial hemp in Loudoun is positive, in that it could further diversify planning choices for Loudoun farmers.”
“If we want them to keep their farms farms, we have to give them the tools in their toolbox to keep their farms farms,” Buffington said.
A report by Loudoun county staff members lists uses in textiles, industrial products, paper, building materials, foods, supplements, technical products such as ink and varnishes, and personal hygiene products. Industrial hemp is described as “generally understood to be an adaptable, low maintenance crop that is viable across a range of growing condition.”
However, some supervisors and Sheriff Michael Chapman worried about legalizing hemp over concerns about marijuana. Chapman pointed out that despite having been legalized by several states, the crop remains illegal under federal law except for research purposes. He said, although the federal law against hemp is “unenforceable,” allowing it legally in Loudoun could complicate law enforcement’s work.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) worried that growing hemp in Loudoun would make it easier to hide marijuana crops by putting them in hemp fields, despite the difference in appearance. He pointed to an incident in which a marijuana crop in Bluemont was hidden in a cornfield.
But according to information prepared for supervisors before the meeting, a hemp field may in fact be the last place a marijuana grower would want to hide their crop. The county report cites a paper from the Congressional Research Service, which said “using hemp as a cover for marijuana is detrimental to both crops through undesirable cross-pollination; hemp will dilute the THC content in marijuana, and vice versa, likely rendering the hemp with a higher than desirable THC content, thereby making it illegal.”
“I almost feel like I’m watching one of those freaky little movies they showed back in the 1960s on how to stay away from drugs,” said Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “This is an agricultural product. It’s made in many countries. We are being left out.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pointed to other states that have legalized hemp—including Virginia’s neighbors Kentucky and West Virginia. “Kentucky is not a liberal state,” she said. “West Virginia is not a liberal state.”
“This is how you make sweaters, and how you make blankets and what type of thing,” Randall said. “You can go smoke your sweater if you want to. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Supervisors voted 6-3 to include support for legalizing industrial hemp in their federal legislative agenda, with Supervisors Higgins, Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) opposed.
“Let’s not be left behind on this,” Buffington said. “Let’s lead on this, and let’s give our farmers the tools they need to succeed.”
In 2014, Congress passed legislation that defined hemp as containing very low THC, beginning to separate it from marijuana in federal law. Another federal bill, the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, co-sponsored a Democrat and two Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been in committee for months.
Some parts of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 have been included in the Senate’s 2018 Farm Bill, which is currently in conference committee.