Hemp Fest

Some feel that hemp production can benefit farmers, as it’s a high-yield crop that takes up little land.

For nearly 50 years, hemp’s been banned by legislation that classifies it as a Schedule I drug. Due to its similarities with marijuana, there are those that feel it should be kept illegal. However, there’s strong opposition to the current legislation, and a number of congressmen, including Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), are leading the push to legalize the crop.

A Schedule I drug’s defined as a drug with no medicinal use and a high potential for abuse. Hemp was grouped with marijuana as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1970. 

Although hemp and marijuana are in the same family of plants, they’re very different from each other. Marijuana’s a psychoactive drug, while hemp’s an industrial oil and fiber crop that’s harvested to make products. Tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive component of marijuana. Marijuana has a THC content ranging from 15-30 percent, while hemp must have 0.3 percent or less THC to qualify as industrial hemp.

Goodlatte — along with educators, law enforcement and other state lawmakers — attended an Industrial Hemp Field Day at a Harrisonburg farm on Friday to continue building support for legal hemp. Goodlatte’s co-sponsoring a bill, known as the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, which has bipartisan support and aims to allow commercial production and sale of industrial hemp by delisting it from the controlled substances list. 

“I’d like to see as much hemp out here as I see corn out here, that would be really quite something,” Goodlatte said. “But they can’t do that now because they can’t sell the hemp.”

Hemp can be used to make textiles, fabrics, biodiesel and different types of oils that can be used for soaps. Currently, all the hemp products in America have to be imported from other countries, such as China and Canada, where hemp’s already used to produce a multitude of products. This wasn’t always the case, however.

Hemp has a long history in America, as it was one of the first crops brought over by colonists for commercial production. By the late 1700s, the Shenandoah Valley was the largest hemp-producing region in the country, according to Michael Renfroe, a biology professor at JMU who does research on the plant. 

While hemp’s illegal to produce commercially, Virginia passed a law in 2015 allowing universities to study the crop. JMU’s one of three schools — alongside Virginia Tech and Virginia State University — in the Commonwealth currently researching hemp production and utilization. Their research is legal, but there are restrictions.

“Right now to work with it, we have to be registered with the DEA and we have to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services here in Virginia, which requires us to pay a licensing fee, go through a criminal background check and be fingerprinted,” Renfroe said.

The Rodes family owns the lead farm for JMU’s research. The Rodes’ farm was host to Friday’s Industrial Hemp Field Day. Glenn Rodes contacted JMU once he found out Virginia was allowing universities to research hemp because of his interest in alternative fuel and crops. JMU then put him in contact with Renfroe.

“We need to get laws changed, we need to get it delisted from the Controlled Substances Act,” Rodes said. “It’s not a dangerous crop, it’s just a normal farm crop.”

Not everyone sees it like Rodes. Just this year, Kirk Thompson, the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, released a statement in opposition to state legislation similar to Goodlatte’s federal bill. Thompson cited multiple difficulties that the bill would create for law enforcement as reason for his opposition, including a negative impact on forensic lab systems that use any trace of THC to detect marijuana. Four Arizona state legislators expressed similar concerns to a policy proposed in their state earlier in the year.

Renfroe says he knows that law enforcement’s concerned that people may try to grow marijuana inside industrial hemp fields, which is one of the reasons for the number of governmental restrictions on who can grow hemp. 

The passage of Goodlatte’s bill would remove these restrictions for researchers and commercial farmers alike.

“His support means everything to our program going forward,” Renfroe said. “We’re very optimistic, very hopeful, that the bill he’s co-sponsoring will get passed into law this year. Hemp at that point will become just another crop.” 

According to Renfroe, hemp has the potential to stimulate the economy and provide jobs in Virginia and the rest of the country by providing high yields with low input, giving another option for farmers with smaller acreages. 

With the bill currently being reviewed by government committees, Rodes may be able to start producing hemp on his farm commercially if the bill passes. 

“I think it has a very good chance,” Rodes said. “Congressman Goodlatte is supporting it and that’s a big deal to us, and so I’m very hopeful.”

If Goodlatte’s bill comes out of committee review, it could reach the congressional floor in the current session, and if it goes through Congress, it’d go into effect pending President Trump’s signing.

“This seems to be a crop that professors at JMU and Glenn Rodes all believe has great commercial potential right here in the Shenandoah Valley,” Goodlatte said. “Therefore, that is a very important thing that I can do for my constituents.” 

Contact Thomas Robertson at rober3tl@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.

Thomas Robertson is a staff writer for the Breeze. He’s a senior media arts & design major. Thomas is a die-hard DC sports fan who also enjoys trying to be good at golf, listening to hip-hop and arguing about sports.