In a surprising turn, Pennsylvania is throwing the door wide open for industrial hemp production — something the state, or the United States, for that matter, has not seen since before World War II.
State Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said Tuesday that Pennsylvania submitted a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that allows for the full commercial production of industrial hemp.
Hemp has a slew of potential applications, including beauty products, clothing, bioplastics for car parts and more, building materials and housing insulation, energy storage devices for electronics, 3D printing filament, pest resistance and weed suppression, and food oils and rope.
When the law was passed, the state Agriculture Department had a research-based plan for hemp underway, and with no federal rules in place on how legalization would work, said it was too late to change course for 2019. But on Tuesday, Redding said Pennsylvania will reopen the 2019 program to include applications for commercial growing operations.
The state said its program will also remove growing caps of 100 acres for current and new applicants.
“Pennsylvania’s story is shaped by agriculture and the products that help grow the commonwealth, and industrial hemp presents an exciting new chapter in that story,” Redding said in a statement.
The farm bill, signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 20, allows the interstate commerce of hemp products and hemp cultivation and processing for any use.
The new law also allows the extraction of cannabidiol, also known as CBD, a nonintoxicating chemical compound that is claimed to have medicinal properties.
The bill marked a big step from changes enacted in 2014 that gave states the authority to establish agricultural research pilot programs.
But the bill's vague language left unclear the permitted commercial scope of state pilot programs, and it did not change the Controlled Substances Act to exempt hemp varieties of cannabis.
Pennsylvania launched a pilot program in 2016. As of Tuesday, it had conditionally approved 84 permit applications, pending a Feb. 1 deadline for paying a program fee and signing the agreement, according to department spokeswoman Shannon Powers. The list of growers is expected to be made public upon completion.
Under Pennsylvania’s proposed plan, industrial hemp would be regulated under the Controlled Plant and Noxious Weed Committee, which in turn would make it a controlled plant.
Such a label would require all growers to obtain permits and be subject to enforcement. But there would be no limit on the number of applicants.
Hemp supporters praised Redding’s decision.
“It’s one more step, but in this case it’s a big step for Pennsylvania farmers who are certainly seeking alternatives in new rotational crops,” said Geoff Whaling, president of the Pennsylvania Hemp Industrial Council.
Whaling, who is also chairman of the National Hemp Association, said Pennsylvania’s changes will give farmers a chance to earn more revenue.
Industrial hemp was a cash crop in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hemp production was curtailed after World War II amid a marijuana scare.
Hemp cultivation became explicitly illegal in 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified all varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant as a Schedule 1 drug.
Hemp processing is the crucial missing link in creating efficient supply chains that, on one end, entice farmers to grow the crop, and on the other end, compel established industries to give hemp-based technologies a try.
So supply-chain challenges remain, Whaling and Powers said. That includes such aspects as how to harvest hemp on a large scale and determining what its main pests are.
Whaling said the Pennsylvania hemp group is planning to make a “substantial announcement” soon about a regional hemp industrial park.
Whaling also said Tuesday’s announcement is a “win-win” for the hemp industry, “and we couldn’t be more thankful to the department.”
Pennsylvania joins Kentucky as the only states to submit a program to the USDA, Powers said.