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Ceiling on THC levels remains intact for industrial hemp growers

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(The Center Square) — Wednesday was a buzzkill for Virginia’s industrial hemp farmers.

Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpepper, brought a bill before the House of Delegates Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee that would have allowed commonwealth farmers to cultivate industrial hemp with a THC concentration as high as 1%, up from 0.6%.

“Dominion Hemp is the largest hemp animal bedding company in the United States. At this point in time, we have to source our materials from other states due to the restrictions that currently are on our Virginia farmers,” said the company’s founder, Marty Phipps.

Committee members were concerned with how the legislation might impact Virginia’s marijuana regulations, even though the bill authorized state agencies to confiscate any cannabis with such concentrations, and many states regulate their industrial hemp and marijuana industries separately, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Industrial hemp is cultivated from the seeds, oil or fiber of the hemp plant, while marijuana is generally produced from the plant’s flowers or buds. Industrial hemp is a nascent industry in the United States, with the federal government authorizing its growth in 2014.

The 2014 Federal Farm Act enabled states to authorize research and pilot industrial hemp programs. The 2018 Farm Act expanded the acceptable growth of the product. If the federal government approved a state’s production plan, individuals could now grow industrial hemp according to the parameters set by their state.

The Department of Agriculture approved Virginia’s Plan to Regulate Hemp Production in the commonwealth in November 2021, and Virginia began regulating industrial hemp production in 2022.

Freitas’ bill would adjust those regulations because, according to hemp farmers, allowing hemp with higher levels of THC would enable them to grow more varieties of the plant and better predict crop production.

But the committee was fraught with questions.

“How can we be certain of the distinction between ‘this is being grown for industrial hemp’ and ‘this is being grown for other purposes?’” asked Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan.

The way Virginia tracks who’s growing which product also caused confusion — confusion that was not assuaged by testimony from the Industrial Hemp Program Manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture, Erin Williams.

“Currently, VDACs issues industrial hemp grower registrations so that anyone can grow hemp, any variety of hemp, be it fiber, grain or flower for cannabinoids…. We don’t currently ask applicants to tell us what type they’re gonna grow,” Williams said.

After more than 20 minutes of discussion, Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, made a motion.

“With all of these concerns, Mr. Chair, I would like to motion to lay this bill on the table,” Tran said.

Committee Democrats voted for the motion, while committee Republicans opposed it.

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