The Alaska Agricultural Division is poised to transition a pilot farm program growing industrial hemp for a variety of uses to commercial operators, but first needs approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A bill before the state Senate Labor and Commerce Committee would clarify rules for growing industrial hemp in Alaska, including setting strict limits of 0.3% allowable THC in crops for processing as animal feed, bio-fuel, insulation, bio-plastics, shampoo, salve and other personal-care products.

Industrial hemp commercially grown in Alaska would be harvested for manufacturing and processing as retail products. The industrial hemp industry is estimated to be worth $20 billion, with its value growing.

“This is a crop you cannot get inebriated on,” Sen. Gary Stevens noted during the presentation. Hemp and recreational marijuana “are not the same thing or controlled in the same way.”

The federal government has strict guidelines for states to allow industrial hemp farming that need to be approved by the USDA for Alaska hemp products to be sold nationally and around the world. The bill before the Senate committee would align Alaska’s definition of industrial hemp with the federal definition.

The Senate committee in March heard about the state agricultural division’s efforts to refine Alaska rules that include allowing farmers to blend crops that exceed allowable THC limits with crops that fall below standards to get the right outcome for sale to processors.

“Aren’t we asking a lot of our farmers that we would not be asking of, say, someone who was growing a crop of wheat?” Stevens asked.

“There are certain guidelines the state has to meet, and this bill attempts to do that,” said Buddy Whitt, a staff member in Sen. Shelley Hughes’ office. “There are more requirements than for seed potatoes. But there is no other crop potential with a THC product.”

Members of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Agriculture explained that every crop has rules and regulations for growing and come under inspection. Here are more details on Alaska’s budding industrial hemp industry:

• Under a pilot program in 2020, five farms grew a total of 70 acres of industrial hemp. The number of growers is expected to top 15 in 2021.

• The state currently has 128 retailers registered and offering for sale products that contain hemp and hemp derivatives.

• Alaska has more than 250 “acceptable” varieties of hemp that can be grown for industrial use.

Rob Carter, state agronomist, said the pilot program and sampling of the crops went well, adding that there is “huge interest in hemp derivatives ... It is a very unique crop with massive interest.”

He noted in an interview in March that the state manages industrial hemp from “seed to shelf.”

David Schade, who directs the Alaska Division of Agriculture, said that a growing number of farmers have shown interest in industrial hemp. Schade emphasized the need to align with federal rules for the industry to advance.

“It is important to note that we have to keep the state within federal guidelines,” he said. “We need to be in compliance. We then can operate on a national and international basis,” with USDA approval.

Sara Williams of Hemp for Healthcare in America testified in favor of Alaska allowing industrial hemp to be grown commercially by farmers. “Alaska needs hemp,” she said. “The versatility of the hemp plant means that there is an opportunity to create jobs, which is tremendous for the state.”

Contact Alaska Cannabist writer Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575.

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