It’s tempting to say we won the war. My feet are resting on a mulch-covered, old Central Maui sugarcane field in the process of conversion from barren, chemical-pumped dirt to nutrient-rich community farmland. I’m listening to presentations about the opportunities of hemp, and the speakers make the case for victory all the more seductive. Doug Fine, a best-selling author and “solar-powered goat herder” who’s spent years writing about hemp and cannabis, declares that “We won the cannabis war.” Lynnette Shaw, a cannabis activist who ran with the “Hemperor” Jack Herer earning her the title “Queen of Green” (and many years on the lam), agrees: “We’re done with the marijuana war. We’re done with the hemp war.”
It’s an appeal for a brighter, greener future that’s always seemed just out of reach: a Maui unmoored from corporate agriculture, open to the possibilities of cannabis production, and supportive of neighborhood farmers who want to grow healthy crops supportive of the environment and our island economy.
But such victories are never so simple when it comes to coveted resources like land, water, and cash crops.
As Shaw warns, citing Sun Tzu’s Art of War: “The greatest atrocities are always committed at the end of war.”
Nestled between Haleakala and Mauna Kahalawai, this picturesque Aloha Friday probably isn’t the battlefield Sun Tzu had in mind when he wrote millenia ago. However, the words – albeit dramatic – hold relevance, given the end of large-scale Hawaiian sugarcane operations and the trading of one corporate entity for another which has proven similarly dodgy when it comes to transparency and stewardship of public trust resources like water.
The proverb also holds with the slowly waning struggle to grow hemp and cannabis, crops that have endured a near-century of slander and outlasted decades of an unjust and unscientific Drug War. Marijuana, or psychoactive and medicinal cannabis containing high levels of THC, is legal for recreational use in 11 states and the District of Columbia; for most states, it’s legal for medical use, and many have decriminalized the plant’s sticky, mind-altering flower.
Hemp, marijuana’s serious and utilitarian cannabis cousin, has also seen recent boosts, distancing itself and its uses (which range from hempcrete to underwear, to afterschool snacks to artisan cosmetics) from that of its reggae concert-frequenting relative.
Ten years ago, it’d be a college student’s wildest dream.
And yet, despite the implementation of Hawai‘i’s Hemp Pilot Program and the passage of the Federal 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (where it was absurdly listed alongside hard-hitters like heroin and LSD), the battles are far from over for those local farmers who want to grow hemp.
The Hemp Can’t Move
Ray Maki speaks in a soothing, deep monotone that slightly upticks with enthusiasm when he talks about hemp. He’s one of the first licensees under the state Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Pilot Program established in 2017, and he farms on Kaua‘i as one of the 36 licensed hemp growers in the state. As the president of the Hawai‘i Hemp Farmers Association, Maki’s a firm believer in the promise of the cannabis plant and is regarded as one of the farmers on the frontlines of a revolution that Doug Fine is keen to say is the “new Silicon Valley,” in terms of the industries and innovation that American hemp cultivation will seed.
Maki made the trip down the island chain to participate in the annual State Convention of the Hawai‘i Farmers Union United, held this year on Mahi Pono’s Community Farmlands in Pu‘unene. There’s a classroom-sized tent, with TVs and audio installations to match, that’s been deemed the “Hemp Tent.” It’s the cannabis-designated locus of talks and panels over the three-day convention, featuring thinkers, farmers, and producers like Lynnette Shaw, Doug Fine, entrepreneur Lelle Vie, and Ray Maki. As I float between sessions, meeting people, taking notes and photos, curious like a bee seeking out the smells of that sweet hemp flower, Maki calls me over. He’s eager to tell me about hemp.
“Hemp and cannabis is the biggest opportunity for the American farmer ever in the history of this country,” he says, breaking monotone to emphasize the point. “There’s never been a bigger opportunity to be at the bottom floor of an agricultural commodity that’s going to change everything in the fiber industry.”
Used for more than fiber, it’s a “three-crop plant,” he explains, meaning it can produce seeds, cannabinoids, and fiber. Hemp fiber is notoriously strong, used across the globe throughout history, and is said to be stronger than steel, though needing less chemicals to grow than cotton. Its seeds and oil contain healthy Omega fatty acids used for food, supplements, and cosmetics. The flowers produce chemicals, called cannabinoids, in addition to the (in)famous mind-bending THC. These hemp bud cannabinoids hold potential for health and wellness, and include the now-famous CBD, alongside promising upstart cannabinoids CBN and CBG (and many others are the subject of research).
But with myriad opportunities come challenges.
“The main problem we have for the growth of the hemp industry in Hawai‘i is the current state law,” Maki says. As written, the law prohibits the movement of hemp biomass off property. “We cannot ship within our own state, but interstate shipments of other states’ biomass is allowed, which is completely ass-backwards.”
Raymond McGorry, the founder of Solvate Services LLC, has been a licensed hemp producer on Maui since June 2019. He agrees that there are many challenges for the striving hemp farmer. While cannabis is a complex plant requiring nuanced growing technique, he says that the growing process “to be quite honest, has been by far the easiest part of this whole endeavour.”
“As the current regulations stand you cannot remove leafy material or resinous heads from the grow site,” McGorry adds. “In addition, there are a grand total of zero licensed hemp processors in the state of Hawai‘i. Then to make things even more difficult, the avenue for getting permitted for such a processing facility doesn’t exist currently.”
That means that any entity farming hemp on Maui or in Hawai‘i has to process the green into a finished product on the farm premises – no selling the raw biomass to offsite producers with the experience and infrastructure to make the plant into, say, biofuel, fiber, or edible oil. In effect, Hawai‘i’s hemp farmers have to keep their projects small enough that any processing can be done by their team on-site. Or, they can take a risk and invest in the kinds of costly equipment that’s used for creating finished hemp products. But if a farmer invests in that technology and a hemp-farming neighbor wants to share or rent it to process their own hard-grown hemp, tough luck – the law prohibits it.
“It’s a gap in the law,” Maki laments. “It all would have been solved if this bill passed last [legislative session].”
Governor Ige Killed SB1353
Maki refers to last legislative session’s Senate Bill 1353, which would have established a new hemp licensing program in the state in accordance with the Federal 2018 Farm Bill. SB1353 solved the problem of transportation, allowing “department-approved” transportation of plant material to processing sites.
“When Governor Ige sent down his 2019 bill package, it was clear that his intention for hemp was to keep the pilot program in place,” says Lauryn Rego, Hawai‘i program director for the Center for Food Safety. The organization supports hemp cultivation as a way to offset food farmers’ financial barriers through introduction of a profitable rotational crop, attract young people to farm work, and rehabilitate soils that have been depleted through decades of chemical-heavy industrial agriculture.
HCFS conducted legislative workshops in partnership with the Maui Hemp Institute where “farmers identified concerns with both current law and the proposed bills,” Rego explains. “The biggest issue for current hemp license holders is their inability to transport crops off the field for processing.”
While the organization “triumphantly challenged unjust language in the bill that banned anyone with a prior felony conviction from ever participating in Hawai’i’s emerging hemp industry” and also “advocated for increased funding for the industrial hemp program through the Department of Agriculture,” it hit a roadblock when trying to pass the kinds of common-sense rules that farmers like Maki and McGorry advocate.
“The road to seeing a bill passed that supported the needs of both current and future hemp farmers, with the limitations of the underfunded Department of Agriculture, while still receiving the green light from regulatory agencies was more arduous than anticipated,” says Rego.
In the end, the remnants of the cannabis prohibition era prevailed.
“It came down to a question about the criminality provision in the final language – or lack thereof,” Rego recalls. “In conference committee, the Senate pushed for language – coming from the top – which clarified growing hemp without a license would be a Class C felony. The House took the stance that growing hemp without a license is growing cannabis and there are laws in place that cover that.” In the end, the bill proposed a monetary fine on unpermitted hemp grows.
“Those following closely were aware of the likelihood that the Attorney General would not approve the signing of a bill without the felony language,” says Rego.
“Gov. Ige’s veto of SB1353 was bewilderingly misguided and disappointing,” says Rep. Tina Wildberger (D-Kihei, Wailea, Makena). “Finally, we get a good bill all the way through the legislative process only to have it meet a ‘Reefer Madness’ demise. The legacy of puritanical plantation era patriarchy hamstrings our state and prevents diversification of our economy.”
Governor Ige explained his rationale in this two-liner, from his Intent to Veto proclamation: “There are concerns that this bill creates a licensing structure that cannot be enforced, will not meet USDA requirements for an approved industrial hemp program, and creates practical problems in the enforcement of existing medical cannabis.”
USDA Issues New Rule
There is hope that a push for a better Hawai‘i hemp program will succeed in the next legislative session, especially with the USDA’s release of new federal guidelines on Oct. 31. The “Interim Final Rule” runs 43 dense pages long, and is in a 60-day public comment period until Dec. 31.
The federal guidance signals that the previous state-side roadblocks and objections may soon be cleared.
“Once again we plan to let the farmers guide the conversation and legislation to meet their needs while watchdogging to ensure that the legislation isn’t tougher than the federal guidelines, and is open, transparent, and fair,” says Rego about hemp advocacy going into the next legislative session. “With the new USDA rules released, there shouldn’t be any barriers remaining to passing a solid law in the 2020 session.”
“Hopefully Sen. Gabbard and Rep. Thielen, our hemp champions, will try again with the substance of SB1353,” speculates Wildberger. “Other states are reaping the financial benefits from this new economic sector in agriculture. What better place than Maui to grow, harvest and build a diverse manufacturing economy with countless products for export? Hempcrete for housing, CBD products, paper, fuel, substitutes for plastics and textiles – there are so many possibilities.”
However, the federal rules have areas that remain problematic for farmers like Fine, who grows hemp in Vermont.
Hemp Must Have Less Than .3 Percent THC
Doug Fine lifts his shirt slightly to show off his purple underwear to the room. Yes, the Hemp Tent has a smell (from hemp-derived fragrances) that makes one convention-goer comment to me, “Smells like the party’s over here!” – but it’s not that kind of party. Fine’s actually making an important point: “I have [hemp] underwear that my sweetheart made for me… The fiber’s stronger, and one of the reasons is because there’s more than .3 percent THC.”
He had to get the hemp from China where the THC limits are looser, he says, despite the fact that he grows his own crop. The issue that he and other farmers have to tackle is that under the USDA rule, and the state Hemp Pilot Program, hemp with levels of THC higher than .3 percent cannot be used and must be destroyed. That limits the variety of genetics one can use, and the plant’s effectiveness for certain uses.
“The USDA regulations that came out last week were unacceptable,” Fine says. “It should be up to the farmer to grow any variety of cannabis hemp.”
In Vermont, the current limit is one percent THC. “Cary Giguere, an official with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets who oversees the state’s hemp program, estimated under the proposed federal rule, 70 percent of the crop in the state would not be in compliance,” reads a recent article in VTDigger on farmers’ concerns regarding the new hemp rule.
The restrictions are an artifact of outdated stances toward cannabis. With psychoactive or medicinal cannabis having significant THC levels ranging generally from 15 to 25 percent, there are concerns that THC in industrial hemp could be used as a drug. For the average person, though, non-compliant THC levels in hemp (hemp that tests “hot,” as the farmers say) are still so negligible it’s about as effective for a high as puffing ti leaves.
The stringent .3 percent THC rule is a “ridiculous, arbitrary, artificial limit,” Maki agrees. “It’s very challenging to go and find those genetics. Those limits need to be changed, or we need to decriminalize cannabis. Or we need cannabis legalization.”
To get a compliant crop even with the best genetics, McGorry adds, “the farmer has to harvest the crop extremely early and suffers about 50 percent yield loss as a result.”
He hopes the rules will change to allow at least one percent THC. McGorry plans to have his first crop harvested early next year, and his THC compliance test is coming soon. “We have our fingers crossed,” he says.
His concern is echoed by a number of hemp farmers, who share stories about the difficulties meeting the limit and are concerned that months of labor could result in a crop that’s unusable for anything but compost.
Shelley Choy, the Department of Agriculture’s hemp program coordinator, can’t provide data relating to the number of crops that “test hot” versus comply with the rules. “My guess is that information would be compiled by a research statistician at the end of the pilot program,” she says. “The pilot program wasn’t set up or resourced to continually compile and make information available. Also, the nature of a pilot program is that everything is all experimental, so farmers in the program are figuring out how to grow the crop in a compliant manner.”
A New Agricultural Story
Despite the challenges and uncertainty, hemp farmers are continuing to grow support. There are more barriers facing Hawai‘i’s hemp farmers, including to-be-announced FDA hoops to jump through and rules regarding the production of CBD and other cannabinoids. But to some, those just represent further opportunities for farmers and the state.
“Frankly, the only comments I get from constituents is concern that we’re missing the boat,” says Wildberger. “Our office has received dozens of constituent calls and emails supporting both hemp and legal cannabis.”
“We’re behind on hemp and we’re behind on legal cannabis,” she adds. “Hawai‘i is missing out on potentially $250 million in badly needed tax revenue.”
“I recognize the potential this crop has to restore economic stability for the small farmer and generate large sums of money for Maui residents,” says McGorry. “Hemp will support the farms and provide food stability for this island in the process. I would love to see the Central Valley green and healthy again. Hemp could be the economic driver and phytoremediation tool to do exactly that.”
In just a year of farming hemp under the program, Maki can attest to the economic possibilities of hemp and its potential for getting more workers on the land.
“I have five new employees,” he says. “The other [hemp] farm on Kaua‘i has like eight or 10 new employees. There’s never been a new crop in this state that has that potential – and these are just laborers. It opens opportunities for marketers, lawyers, accountants, material suppliers, transporters, equipment sales.”
“There’s never been another crop like this in the country, especially in Hawai‘i,” Maki says. “We need a new agricultural story.”
Cover design by Albert Cortez
Photos 1, 2, 4 by MauiTime
Photos 3, 5 courtesy Wikimedia Commons