Legislator files hemp bill to give crop a chance in Alaska

Published: Jan. 12, 2017 at 9:34 PM AKST
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A bill prefiled in Juneau is aiming to accomplish what couldn’t be done in the last legislative session: legalizing industrial hemp farming.

Democratic state senator Johnny Ellis pushed for a hemp bill in 2015 and 2016, but even with bipartisan support and a number of cosponsors joining the bill, it was sidelined due to work on the state’s budget deficit.

Now this time, a Republican is taking up the reins.

“Farmers came to me last year and let me know that they would be interested in trying it here in Alaska,” said Palmer senator-elect Shelley Hughes.

A farmer in Alaska could technically grow hemp, but the crop would be regulated by the Marijuana Control Board. That would come with a pile of paperwork, burdensome taxes and regulations that wouldn’t make the crop economically feasible.

With Senate Bill 6, Hughes said she imagines only a letter of notice to the Alaska Division of Agriculture would be necessary to grow a hemp harvest.

“I don't see it as an issue that falls to the left or the right,” said Hughes. “I think it's an economic opportunity for farmers, and if we can grow it well here in Alaska and it could provide some income and jobs, it could have bipartisan support.”

Although Alaska was one of the states leading the charge to legalize cannabis, it's fallen behind the majority of the country in regards to hemp regulation. The 2014 Farm Bill passed in Congress gave the first nod towards hemp regulation on a state-to-state basis, but Alaska has not yet acted on adopting any regulations.

Hemp is a plant that looks nearly identical to marijuana but contains less that 0.3 percent THC content. That’s not enough to get a person high. Rather it’s the strong natural fibers in the plant that make hemp enticing to farmers.

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, uses include, “foods and beverages, cosmetics and personal care products, and nutritional supplements, as well as fabrics and textiles, yarns and spun fibers, paper, construction and insulation materials, and other manufactured goods.”

“Until we allow the farmers to grow this and try it, we don't know what potential it really has,” said director for the Alaska Division of Agriculture Arthur Keyes.

Keyes said his division stands ready to testify in favor of the hemp bill.