Defining Washington Hemp Politics Harder Than You Think

Defining WA’s hemp politics, harder than you think.

By Bailey Hirschburg

WASHINGTON: Industrial hemp legislation looks certain to pass after Washington’s state senate voted unanimously in favor of legislating the crop. After years as a low-priority issue, hemp is poised to join the agricultural community in a big way. Though many people worked on the bi-partisan effort, one of the lead forces making it come together was Joy Beckerman, head of Washington State’s Hemp Industries Association (HIA).

Substitute Senate Bill 5012, sponsored by Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond) passed unanimously in early February. The bill was changed by the state House’s Committee on Commerce & Gaming, but in conversation’s with legislators Beckerman is nearly certain a consensus version will reach Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk this year. The issue has broad public support, but is a hot-potato when it comes to how it will be licensed.  

Beckerman and the HIA joined the input of the State Dept. of Agriculture (WSDA), State Patrol, State Toxicology lab, and other legislators and other activists to settle on the best possible language for the law. To Maher, definitions matter. A lot of the fight over the bill focused on who was defining basic things, like cannabis.

Did you think cannabis was a plant? Wrong!

“Our bill says that hemp is ‘…all parts and varieties of the genera Cannabis,’ not the cannabis sativa plant!” Beckerman explains in our phone interview. Beckerman’s personality is a hemp-centric Leslie Knope, of the show “Parks and Recreation.” Upbeat, knowledgable, detail-oriented, even a bit loud, only Maher’s hair color easily sets her apart from the feisty TV character. That, and she’s focused on hemp. She’s thrilled about the result, even if the process was stressful.

A lot of federal and state laws refer to the “cannabis sativa plant” when they’re actually talking about hemp. Sativa is a species of the Cannabis family, grown and used as a drug. It’s varieties are generally called strains (Indica, another popular variety of strains, is actually a sub-species of sativa.) Hemp is actually cannabis ruderalis, a different species in the same genera.

Poor definitions help stereotype hemp as a drug and encourages sativa strains (which have weaker fiber compositions) to be grown as hemp. For Washington hemp to be a viable crop, it needs reliable genetics, a pedigree seed certification system, and unified standards of measurement. Beckerman credits Rep. Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) for listening to her and fighting to keep the fees and regulations on farmers as minimal as possible.

Another threat to a viable hemp law was licensing fees. The WSDA wanted collecting and testing done by their staff only, a process not even recreational pot goes through. They also wanted the right to inspect hemp farms without cause at any time. Beckerman was certain the testing could be done by state licensed labs for about $10 an acre. The WSDA was pushing for testing costing $30 an acre.

“Representative Shea did everything he could to hold [the WSDA] off.” explains Beckerman.

Proposed language still has samples collected by the WSDA, but third party labs will do the testing. The WSDA got their fees, but only for the first year. After that licensing fees will be re-evaluated. Beckerman says current law already requires the WSDA return any collected fees beyond testing and administration costs to the farmers who paid them.

Looking back on the process thus far Maher has found she can play hardball politics as well as any bureaucrat “We can play that game.” she tells me chuckling.

A final sticking point was defining a THC concentration to test for. Hemp’s THC concentrations are so low, by the time you include receptor-blocking chemical CBD, it’s easy to show how hemp could never get a person high. Still, the state patrol and toxicology lab preferred their current testing system which didn’t include CBD. Ultimately, Beckerman was out flanked.

Still, she remains convinced Washington’s will be one of the best hemp systems once it’s growing, and she has no ill will over the process. She admits she’s become a focal point for hemp at the state capitol, but that the bill is a total team effort. “People are working together to do their jobs.”

SSB 5012 has been referred to the House Appropriations committee. You can track it’s progress here: