HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would legalize industrial hemp production in Hawaii.
The proposal comes as Hawaii's last sugar plantation is set to stop sugar production later this year, and the lawmakers say industrial hemp is a viable alternative.
State reps. Kaniela Ing (D, Kihei, Wailea, Makena) and Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua, Kaneohe Bay) introduced the bill, which would legalize a crop still considered a controlled substance and outlawed by the federal government.
However, there is a current exemption to growing hemp that was established under the 2014 federal farm bill, which made it legal in every state for research purposes only.
For the last two years, that's exactly what scientists at the University of Hawaii Waimanalo Research Station have been doing. Other states have also started growing hemp, and 33 states have proposed pro-hemp legislation.
The proposal from Ing and Thielen expands industrial hemp research, growth, and cultivation far beyond it's current pilot project by opening it up to farmers across the state.
"The research under federal law and state law includes commercial research so the farmers will be allowed and authorized to sell their crop," Thielen said.
The market for hemp seed oil and fiber is estimated at about $600 million a year in the United States alone.
It can be used in food or clothing, though it's most attractive options for Hawaii may be as feed for livestock or as a termite-proof building material known as hempcrete. Beyond it's commercial value, legislators say it's environmentally-friendly as well.
"The crop itself can restore nutrients to the soil that it's on. So the former sugar land that has been taking such a pounding from all the pesticides that is now quite barren it can be used to restore - you can plant hemp, plant something else," Ing said.
Hawaii leaders have said it's important that Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar's 36,000 acres in Central Maui remain farmland.
"The governor talked about three options: He said it's either going to be housing for the super rich, it's either going to be a dust bowl or it's going to be agriculture," said Senator Kalani English, (D - Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i and Kaho'olawe). "Let's hope it's agriculture. Let's make it possible for the types of agriculture that are needed."
Senate President Ronald Kouchi (D - Kauai, Niihau) agreed. "The part of keeping it in agricultural use is a lot more important than what's on the land, but the recharge for the water system, I think is very critical," he said.
The hemp proposal has much-needed support from the state Department of Agriculture as well, which would be tasked with issuing licenses to farmers who would then be required to report their findings to the state each year.
"I don't think either of us are trying to argue that this is the panacea that will save Maui's agriculture but it is a very promising crop and part of a larger picture of sunflowers for biofuel, mangoes and avocados for local food production -- and of course hemp for 25,000 uses," Ing said.
In a report released in December, UH researchers in Waimanalo discovered industrial hemp could be commercially grown in Hawaii - and the fiber, stalks, leaves and seed would all support a range of potential industries.
Meanwhile, HC&S officials have expressed a desire to start trial planting, once they get the legal approval.