Washington was one of the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, but it has some catching up to do when it comes to industrial hemp and the lucrative CBD oil market.

“We are actually the only state that legalized marijuana before we legalized hemp,” says Randy Fortenbery, economics professor and Thomas B. Mick Endowed Chair at Washington State University. “It took two legislative sessions before we got it passed. Even under the 2014 Farm Bill, hemp had to be part of a scientific experiment affiliated either with a land-grant university or the Washington State Department of Agriculture.”

Randy Fortenbery
Randy Fortenbery (Photo Robert Hubner)

With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, however, the federal government finally removed hemp from the illicit substance list, effectively ending an 80-year prohibition against its cultivation. States are now free to set up their own commercial hemp management systems, including regulations to assure it isn’t being used to disguise marijuana fields.

Last April, Governor Jay Inslee signed further legislation allowing Washington farmers, including WSU researchers, to buy hemp seeds without federal approval. The bill also eliminated a four-mile buffer zone between hemp and marijuana fields—meant to prevent cross-pollination—that had previously kept much of the state off-limits to hemp growers.

As one of the earliest domesticated plants, hemp has provided benefits to humans for 10,000 years. Before fears of “reefer madness” led the U.S. government to shut down production with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, hemp was prized for its fiber, seeds, oil, and wide array of byproducts ranging from clothing, rope, and cosmetics, to paper and fuel. The plant’s checkered history is mainly due to its similarity to marijuana.

According to Fortenbery, both hemp and marijuana belong to the genus Cannabis and are typically of the varieties C. sativa or C. indica. Depending on growing conditions, either of these varieties can produce high levels of THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive chemical that creates a high.

It’s the concentration of THC in a cannabis plant that determines whether it is called hemp or marijuana. A plant containing more than 0.3 percent THC is considered to be marijuana, a Schedule I federally controlled substance under the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Cannabis plants with 0.3 percent THC or less are classified as hemp.

“When both plants are growing in the wild, you can’t tell them apart,” says Fortenbery. “But you can tell the fields apart. It’s the management practices of the farm that differentiate whether cannabis is being grown as industrial hemp or marijuana.

“If I’m growing for marijuana, I will maximize production of leaves, flowers, and buds, the parts of the plant with the largest concentrations of THC,” he says. “For industrial hemp, I’ll grow for the stalk and seeds. As a result, marijuana plants are generally kept short and bushy. They are also spaced farther apart in rows than industrial hemp plants, which are grown close together to increase height and discourage flowering.”

Fortenbery says another phytochemical called cannabidiol or CBD is also present in all cannabis plants in varying levels. CBD, credited with a wide array of health benefits, is an essential component of many medical marijuana products and does not cause a high.

“A lot of early CBD oil on the market came from marijuana,” says Fortenbery. “But it turns out there’s an inverse relationship between CBD and THC—if you try to maximize CBD concentration in a plant, it results in less THC. So, once it looked like industrial hemp was going to be legalized nationally, people started to focus on hemp as the main feedstock for CBD oil. Now, according to the federal government, the only legal CBD oil is that made from industrial hemp.”

By last summer, the Washington State Department of Agriculture had approved and issued eleven licenses for the cultivation of industrial hemp. Among those license-holders was Timothy Waters, professor and regional vegetable specialist with WSU Franklin and Benton County Extension in Pasco.

Timothy Waters
Timothy Waters (Courtesy WSU Extension)

“I’m a sucker for trying new things. I’m always interested,” he says. “There are lots of challenges with growing new crops—figuring out how to water them, how to plant, where to get the seed, and how much fertilizer they need.”

Waters’s first project was identifying herbicides that could be safely used for hemp fields. He worked in collaboration with WSU professor and weed scientist Ian Burke.

“To be honest, the most difficult part of the process was getting the $300 permit,” Waters says. “It took four months, so it was relatively late by the time we planted our experimental plot in mid-June.”

The cost of hemp seed was another surprise—high CBD varieties run one to three dollars per seed. Working on a budget, Waters decided to grow the fiber type hemp instead, which cost $300 for a 50-pound bag from Canada.

“Hemp grows very fast,” he says. “When we harvested the plots in August, the average height was four feet tall. I was concerned about our late start, but we got the experiment established, herbicides applied, and the data we needed.

“I think we learned a lot,” says Waters. “Next time, we might try feminized seed like commercial CBD growers use. We had both male and female seed this time but the male plants aged out much faster than the females, which stayed green and vigorous longer.”

As for the future, Waters and Fortenbery agree there are potential markets for hemp in Washington, but it will depend on supply and demand, the value of CBD oil, and how much is produced in other more established areas.

“Hemp will certainly grow here,” Fortenbery says. “The question is, can we be competitive? That will depend on the varieties we develop that take advantage of our local environmental characteristics.

“And, despite all the excitement about CBD oil and its possible uses, a lot of medical research hasn’t been done,” he says. “The size of that total market is uncertain as we don’t yet know CBD oil’s true functionality in the health-care system.

“The cosmetic and food markets are also very high-end and high-price markets but too much production could overrun those markets and trigger a price collapse.

“So, there’s still a lot of uncertainty on where this hemp market goes longer term.”