Beneficial circumstances and the dogged persistence of one legislator over many years intersected in this year’s legislative session in the form of Senate Bill 2659 — aka the Hemp Bill, which Gov. David Ige wisely signed into law.

Talk of legalizing hemp cultivation had kicked around the Legislature for many sessions, with state Rep. Cynthia Thielen keeping the conversation alive year to year. This spring, her fingerprints were only briefly on the measure in her official capacity — she was a last-minute replacement named to a conference committee tasked with working out differences between versions passed by the House and Senate. Fellow longtime “hempster” Sen. Mike Gabbard along with Sens. Russell Ruderman and Maile Shimabukuro were the legislation’s principal sponsors.

But it was satisfying to see Thielen as one of three “aye” votes that sent the matter back to both houses with a recommendation of passage. Lawmakers in both chambers voted unanimously to approve the bill. Sometimes, the good guys and the right ideas win out.

Bill supporters Sen. Sam Slom, Reps. Della Au Belatti and Cynthia Thielen and Sens. Mike Gabbard and Will Espero joing Gov. David Ige (seated) for the official bill signing on July 7.
Bill supporters Sen. Sam Slom, Reps. Della Au Belatti and Cynthia Thielen and Sens. Mike Gabbard and Will Espero join Gov. David Ige (seated) for the official bill signing on July 7. Office of Gov. David Ige

Thielen’s advocacy for hemp cultivation in Hawaii stretches back 20 years, when her son challenged her to give it a fair evaluation as a potential replacement crop for dwindling sugar cane.

She liked what she found out — mostly. Hemp has an abundance of practical uses, common in many nations around the world, and a history of widespread cultivation in the United States that dates back to pre-Revolutionary War days. (Betsy Ross, it’s often said, used hemp fibers to make the first American flag.)

But as Thielen learned, hemp’s viability came to a screeching halt with the demonization of its close cousin, marijuana, in the 1930s. By 1957, the last legal hemp crop in the United States was harvested and 13 years later, hemp was made entirely illegal through the Controlled Substance Act.

It was all rather idiotic: Smoked or otherwise ingested, hemp cannot make a user high. It simply lacks the trippy chemistry of marijuana — a pesky fact successfully glossed over by those with a financial interest in keeping hemp off the market or simply a desire to appear tough on drugs.

Agricultural Act of 2014

Rehabilitating hemp’s image has proven more difficult than might have been expected. But in recent years, that’s finally started to change. The Agricultural Act of 2014 allowed states and research institutions to begin legally cultivating hemp through research programs, with sales of hemp fiber, stalks, leaves and seeds from those programs permissible in the open market.

The University of Hawaii launched a modest pilot program under the law. But the bill signed by Ige allows the Department of Agriculture to develop a program much more like a successful effort in Kentucky, where cultivation licenses have been awarded to some 20 grow operations around the state.

Kentucky and Hawaii are now among nine states developing and managing such programs, though not all allow for sale of the hemp grown through those research operations, as Hawaii smartly does. Other states, including Oregon, Colorado and Vermont, have simply passed state laws allowing hemp cultivation and are counting on a lack of enforcement of federal law, which still considers hemp illegal.

Since the last big sugar farm on Maui, Alexander & Baldwin’s Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., announced in January that it would cease operations after the current growing season is completed, there has been endless speculation about what will be done with its 36,000 acres. Likewise, what would become of its 650 workers?

But that announcement created the environment in which hemp could be seen through new eyes. A community petition in support of hemp’s legalization drew more than 4,500 signatures, and SB 2659 enjoyed a fairly uneventful trip through the Legislature, with such leaders as Maui state Rep. Kaniela Ing lending enthusiastic support.

With legal uncertainties now addressed in the new law, HC&S and any other potential hemp grower should soon be able to apply for two-year licenses to cultivate and sell hemp. In return, the state will require growers to contribute to research findings with detailed data on grow operations, harvest and sales.

With legal uncertainties now addressed in the new law, HC&S and any other potential hemp grower should soon be able to apply for two-year licenses to cultivate and sell hemp.

State Department of Agriculture Chair Scott Enright has been supportive of the new efforts around hemp — he contributed state funding to the UH research project — but said earlier this year that hemp will face the same basic challenge confronting other Hawaii crops: Generally speaking, they can be grown more cheaply elsewhere.

Data being generated by research program licensees may provide the knowledge necessary to push back against that fiscal reality. Department of Agriculture overseers will enter agreements with growers to provide data on planting and growing, pest management, cost centers, financing, marketing and industry development.

If economies of scale, other cost mitigation possibilities and marketing/industry development opportunities can be identified, growers could find a marketplace more friendly to their commodity than sugar or pineapple — once major cash crops whose importance to Hawaii have greatly diminished in the face of cheap competition.

Thielen is among a growing number of enthusiasts who point to favorable growing conditions in Hawaii for certain varieties of hemp and to the estimated 25,000 different uses for parts and seeds from the plant. In today’s market, that includes biofuels, beer, home insulation and concrete made from hemp, cosmetics, cloth, paper and much more.

They see opportunities not just for growers, but for business entrepreneurs fueled by a new source of products for which demand already exists in our islands. That could not only enable hemp to replace many of the sugar jobs currently disappearing on Maui, but to be the catalyst for creation of a new cottage industry and jobs around the state.

Now that he’s signed the law, the governor should act as expeditiously as possible to release the $400,000 appropriated to fund the program, given that under the best of scenarios, that process could take several months. The Department of Agriculture has until July 1, 2017 to create administrative rules to govern the program, but Gabbard promised in a radio interview the day after the bill was signed that he would work closely with Enright to complete that process more quickly.

As they do, federal lawmakers, led by members of Hawaii’s delegation, should remove the remaining legal barriers to cultivation of hemp. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 was introduced in the U.S. Senate last year — with both Hawaii Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono adding their support this year as co-sponsors. But the measure hasn’t budged since then.

That stands in sharp contrast to the states, 28 of which have now passed laws allowing some sort of hemp research and/or cultivation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Clearly, the feds need to catch up and make the regulatory environment for this safe, practical plant much more straightforward.

In the meantime, Thielen, Gabbard and other supporters are right to be enthusiastic about hemp’s future in Hawaii.

“Yesterday’s signing of the bill was a historic day that I think will lead to a booming new industry for the state,” said Gabbard on July 8. “It’s going to be fantastic for our economy.”

Hear Gov. Ige’s remarks as he signs the hemp bill into law in the video below. 

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